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12. Adventures with books

Reflecting on public sector work, great writers, and pet presents at Christmas
brown wooden framed candle holder on top of books
Image from Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I’ve just finished Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. All I knew about the book came from Mary Carr’s The Art of Memoir, where Carr quotes a delightful sentence comparing the heft of Tolstoy books to a beluga whale, and includes the book in her list of must-read memoirs. I had been expecting something of a survey of the Russian canon, like George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, or maybe a main plot of the books and a bit of authorial experience woven in, as Sarah Bakewell did in the excellent At the Existentialist Cafe. It wasn’t like that at all.

I’d missed a key clue in the title… “and the people that read them”. Reader, this book is not just about Chekov and Tolstoy, but Chekov and Tolstoy academics. Batuman chronicles a summer of research in Uzbekistan (including the hijinks of higher education grant schemes), conferences going off the rails, and colourful and charismatic colleagues (including a Serbian student who seems somewhere between Byron and Christopher McCandless). More than anything, how people devoted to the beauty of literature (as Batuman self-identifies at the end of the book) have decidedly unbeautiful, messy lives. This is not the detached academic voice. Batuman even includes dream: her dreams, her boyfriends’ dreams (admittedly whilst sweating out food poisoning from an Uzbek stew) and even her colleagues’ dreams. But maybe that’s the way with Russian literature, to truly understand them requires a leap of faith as a person as well as a scholar.

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Safe times to all and see you all in 2022!