The Idiot was crazy to read as someone who is in almost the exact same part of her life as Selin, 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.
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.
“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.”
-Elif Batuman, The Idiot
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.”
-Elif Batuman, The Idiot
The Idiot isn’t very readable and it’s 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.