Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Possessed

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The Possessed

Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

by Elif Batuman

The Possessed by Elif Batuman X
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
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    Feb 2010, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Julie Wan

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About the Author
Elif Batuman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey, but she comes from a Turkish family. Her name, Elif, is actually the Turkish word for alif or aleph, the first letter of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. Because she was born a very skinny and long baby, her parents named her after the letter, which is drawn as a straight line.

Batuman tracks the trajectory of her love affair with Russian literature in the introduction to The Possessed. It began with a copy of Anna Karenina in her grandmother's apartment. For her, this book encapsulates Russianness in its ability to be "simultaneously incredibly funny and sad," she told The Boston Globe.

When Batuman enrolled as a linguistics student at Harvard and chose Russian as her language requirement, she found herself increasingly drawn away from the rules of study of language as a whole and toward the much more "profoundly human" aspect of the Russian language itself. Batuman went on to complete her doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford University, where she currently teaches in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program. But in The Possessed, Batuman confesses, "I wanted to be a writer, not an academic." She goes on to say, "I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?"

Nevertheless, Batuman's intention was always to write, and she had intended to complete a novel after college. Her first journalistic piece was about a former Thai kickboxing champion and was published in The New Yorker. "Babel in California," the first essay in The Possessed, ran in 2005 in the journal n+1, for which she is a senior writer. Other essays in the collection also first appeared in various other publications, including Harpers and The New Yorker. For readers who can't get enough of Batuman's smart sense of humor, check out her blog.

Article by Julie Wan

This article is from the March 17, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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