Book Chatter: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Just a quick reminder: I’m still looking for art, songs, crafts, music, writing, and other creations inspired by the Harry Potter series, to be featured here in a special Harry Potter Week series starting on July 20. Send ’em in, folks! (More details available here.)


School, I’ve found, is the long process of continually expanding one’s boundaries — exploring new disciplines, discovering new loves, developing new skills. It’s not always easy. It’s not always comfortable. But it will generally be worth the pain, in one way or another.

When I signed up for calculus, for example, I did not do so because I loved math. I tolerate math as a truth in the universe, and I respect the people who dedicate their lives to it. But you will never see me in front of a high-school algebra class with my eyes lit up as I introduce the concept of variables.

Is ... is this math? I can't even tell.

Is … is this math? I can’t even tell.

On my first day of calculus class, I discovered that (a) I was in way over my head and (b) this wasn’t just about a new skill set; this was about an entirely new part of the brain that I had never accessed before. It was scary. It was uncomfortable. But I needed to pass that class, so I parked myself in the tutoring center every night and waded through the work. If I ran into trouble, I asked for help. If an example problem scared me, I made it a priority. And by the end of the quarter, I not only understood the mechanics of calculus a bit better, I also appreciated the many mysteries that still existed.

Sometimes I like to type vague keywords into Pixabay and see where the magic takes me. Here’s a top result for “mystery”.

In The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman wades right into the pains and rewards of this kind of discomfort, in the context of her study of Russian literature. There’s not much of a plot, per se, but in that element, The Possessed is an eerily accurate portrait of human life — and, some would say, of Russian literature itself. Part school story, part travelogue, part crash course in literature, The Possessed boomerangs from Moscow to America to Uzbekistan and back again, exploring the jungle of passions that compose the corpus of Russian lit and the factors that lead people to study it in the first place.

If I haven’t hooked you yet, don’t give up on The Possessed quite yet — Batuman’s literature story is way better than my calculus story for quite a few reasons, including (1) she actually loves the subject, (2) she’s had many years to delve into it, and (3) she’s hilarious. You don’t have to be a Russian literature enthusiast to enjoy The Possessed. You don’t even have to be a literature enthusiast. But if you’re open to the idea of having your brain twisted around the hairpin turns of a topic not commonly discussed in America, with the guidance of someone who has seen the best and worst of the field, then The Possessed is definitely the book for you.

Another underrepresented topic: the waning of formal cotillions.

Another underrepresented topic: the waning of formal cotillions.

Photo credits: Chalkboard from ericfleming8, portrait from trgobalan, and formal ball from tpsdave on Pixabay.


4 thoughts on “Book Chatter: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

  1. I have this book on my wish list! (I store books on Amazon and buy them from a local store :p) I’ll have to buy it now. My boyfriend is Russian-Ukrainian. One of the first things I asked him about was Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al. He said he wasn’t a big fan! (Probably because he had to read War and Peace at such a young age, before it could make any sense.) I wasn’t sure how things would work out from there. I love Russian composers also: Prokoviev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov. I am one of these obsessed people and could go on and on…

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