The Possessed

The Possessed

Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Book - 2010
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Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence--including her own.
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
ISBN: 9780374532185
Characteristics: 296 p. ;,21 cm.


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May 25, 2017

This book is like a rich, thick slice of chocolate lava cake. It's full of amazing stories, rich history, unique characters, told in a clean, young voice. Not really excited about Russian history before I opened the book, but couldn't stop reading and really quite enjoyed the differences in culture. As well as the similarities.

One of those books you feel like you lived, rather than read. Amazing writer.

Dobrila_T Feb 12, 2016

I was absolutely bewitched by Batuman's wonderfully accomplished prose and wicked sense of humour.

Nov 04, 2014

Elif Bautman's book reminds me of this one funny part of being a librarian: there's this really strong cultural image of <i>librarian</i> that all librarians kind of live with and react to. If you don't take yourself too seriously, you can have a lot of fun with this. Elif Bautman does this with her intellectualism, with her status as a grad student and an academic. She academizes life and applies life to her academics. She is learned and very interesting, and this is highlighted by the fact that she loves her studies but does not take them, or herself, too seriously.

I super enjoyed this book.

But the last chapter was crap: rough and disjointed.

jaclyn_michelle May 01, 2013
“In fact I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one. It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years–it took the experience of lived time–to realize that they are really the same thing.” (page 10)
I added Batuman’s The Possessed to my 30 Before 30 Literary Bucket List for several reasons: 1) I follow her on Twitter and find her tweets hilarious and endearing (and her twitter handle is nothing short of amazing). 2) I LOVE narrative nonfiction. I personally feel like I absorb more information when it’s contextualized within the author’s personal experience. 3) I’ve read her work for The New Yorker before (I especially liked her piece on the Davilov bells). 4) I’m rereading Anna Karenina this summer, and figured a refresher course of sorts on Russian literature was probably in order. I read Crime and Punishment in high school and a few Chekhov plays in college, so my Russian lit experience is fairly limited. Any additional historical/biographical content/context can be nothing but helpful.
I was not disappointed. Batuman is nothing short of delightful! The Possessed was perfectly balanced between incredibly interesting information (from Babel to Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and back again) and Batuman’s anecdotes, and was completely accessible. The flow, the pace, the style…it just worked.
My favorite chapter: “Who Killed Tolstoy?”, in which Batuman shares her experience staying at Yasnaya Polyana (which is the estate where Tolstoy was born, spent most of his life, and wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for the International Tolstoy Conference and weaves in research to support her hypothesis that Tolstoy could have potentially been murdered. Very funny. Absolutely fascinating.
Fun fact: Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate : snakes :: Earnest Hemingway’s Key West house : three toed cats. “‘There are no cats at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana,’ begins Amy Mandelker’s well-known study, Framing Anna Karenina: ‘Curled, or rather, coiled in the sunny patches in the Tolstoy house, protecting it from pestilential infestations, instead of the expected feline emblems of domesticity…[are] snakes…The ancestors of these ophibian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy’s ailurophobic wife, Sofia Andreyevna [Sonya], to rid the house of rodents.’ I was contemplating these lines on the second morning of talks, when I counted a total of four cats actually inside of the conference room. That said, in fairness to Amy Mandelker, you couldn’t accuse Yasnaya Polyana of a shortage of snakes. At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy’s editions of Kant: he had seen a snake right there in the archive.” (page 117)
Rubric rating: 8.5. I really hope she’s working on another book!!! Or revives her blog.

debwalker Dec 07, 2010

The subtitle of Batuman's book, "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them," doesn't begin to tell the tale of this quirky, funny, erudite hybrid of intellectual razzle-dazzle, graduate school angst, youthful high spirits and a serious examination of aspects of Russians and their literature never before undertaken in quite the same way. Her descriptions of life in Samarkand, living with her boyfriend and studying with a series of eccentrics is told dead-pan and makes you laugh out loud.

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