THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman

From the Back Cover

The year is 1995, and email is new.  Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard where she signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student.  Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and mysterious meanings.  When the school year ends, Ivan goes to Budapest and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside.  Her summer does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of college students, but rather is the beginning of a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer. 

My Thoughts

Reading THE IDIOT was an insane experience for me because I am at almost the exact same point in my life as Selin, our main character, having just finished my first year of college (though definitely not at Harvard).  I’m a big believer in the importance of reading a book at the right time, and I think reading THE IDIOT now was the perfect time for me.  It’s a muted, thought-provoking coming-of-age story with hilarious dead-pan humor and gorgeously-written vignettes.  Though THE IDIOT seems to be a very hit-or-miss book, it struck a chord with me and I fell in love after the first few pages.

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors.  Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies.  But they’re you, I thought to myself.  How did they not know?  They didn’t know.  It was astounding, an astounding truth.  Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”

THE IDIOT is the definition of a book where absolutely nothing happens, and yet I read it surprisingly quickly.  It felt slightly autobiographical and read like a memoir at times; Batuman characterized Selin so distinctly that in the days after finishing it I wondered what she’d be up to.  THE IDIOT is one of those books that you have to read very closely, because every paragraph is important: skim something and you’ll miss a big part of the story.  Each sentence, every paragraph felt like a story in and of itself; they were all there for a reason, and they came together to create a bigger narrative.  It’s the kind of book that warrants a reread because you may have missed something the first time around, something that would change the entire reading process.

THE IDIOT is smart with wit, and yet it feels very academic.  The formality of the way Batuman writes reminded me of writing college papers; Selin often describes her classes and different linguistics topics, and speaks about literature in a highly intellectual way, so much so that it often went over my head.  She thinks a lot and is very aware that she is thinking a lot, and she wonders what she should be thinking about versus what other people are thinking about… you get the gist.  Selin is very conscious that she is in academia, and Batuman writes about it satirically, pointing out the ironies of language in a subtle, clever way.

“I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time- the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed.  But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”

THE IDIOT is certainly not for everyone, but I got along with it splendidly.  It’s a witty, character-driven book that will make you think way too much and laugh out loud at the same time.


  1. Rachel

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I definitely understand why so many people have not been getting on with it, but I adored it pretty much from the first page. And that’s a great point about reading books at the right time. I graduated college a few years ago so I’m not at that stage in my life, but I did start reading The Idiot a couple of days after having a conversation where I’d been trying and failing to articulate a lot of my frustrations with my own academic experience that I then saw reflected in this book, so it felt like good timing for me as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah and Her Books

      Yes! Of course I didn’t mean you had to be a college student in order to “get” the book, but I think that personally helped me understand the humor a little bit more, whereas if I’d read it in high school I wouldn’t have liked it as much, if at all. I TOTALLY understand why a lot of people haven’t enjoyed this book, but like you I adored it from the beginning. Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel: I always love hearing what you have to say!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rachel

        Oh, definitely, that was just my longwinded way of saying that it was also the right moment for me to read it for a totally different reason. I can’t imagine getting anything out of this in high school, I wonder if there are many teenagers who’ve actually liked this book?! It’s the kind of thing I could almost see being assigned in college English classes. And thank you, it’s no bother at all, I always love reading your reviews! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hannah and Her Books

        I actually just saw someone on Goodreads categorize this as young adult, on the sole argument that the main character was a teenager… I know for a fact that fourteen-year-old me would’ve absolutely hated this book, so I found that kind of laughable! On the other hand I absolutely see this being read in college classes; there’s a Contemporary Lit class at my university that THE IDIOT would be perfect for!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rachel

        Oh my god that is hilarious, The Idiot as YA?????? I mean I GUESS Selin is technically a teenager and if that’s the only criterion for YA then sure….. But yes it would be so much fun to talk about in a class setting, there’s so much about the function of language that would be great to discuss!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hannah and Her Books

        I viewed THE IDIOT as being more of a campus novel, not young adult at all!!! (Even if Selin is 18-19 years old.) Going off of that logic, THE SECRET HISTORY would be YA too! It definitely fits more into a college setting than a high school one.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Rachel

        Honestly I probably would have been into it 😂 except I was in my I hate Vermont phase so I didn’t want to read any books set here…. teenage me would have been more turned off by the setting than the murder.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Hannah and Her Books

        Well I have nothing against Vermont! so that wouldn’t have bothered me!! 😂😂 I just think I would’ve been bored, tbh. When I think YA I don’t picture a peculiar gang of murderous Classics students at a small-town liberal arts college… one of my favorites now though!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Rachel

        Now that I am out of my I hate Vermont phase I am glad to hear you have nothing against it, it is a lovely place!! 😂😂 I think for TSH to be YA it would have to be at a boarding school and there would be a lot less drug abuse and incest and murder…. but apparently these things are a recipe for brilliant adult lit because it is one of my absolute favorites.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenn @ the Bibliofile

    I read her first book The Possessed a long time ago and had very similar thoughts (definitely not for everyone, academic, witty, very quirky, no real plot, etc.), so it sounds like the books are similar — I liked it but it probably wasn’t the best book for me, I bet you’d love it though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah and Her Books

      Thanks Jenn! Now that I’ve read and enjoyed THE IDIOT, I am quite curious about THE POSSESSED, so I might give that one a go at some point. They do sound really similar but I’m not the biggest fan of Russian lit, so we’ll see!


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