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18 August 2010

Book Review: The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemElif Batuman 
I find it amusing that most people have probably picked up this book because it was featured on an NPR reading list; one that purported to focus on laugh-out-loud funny reads, an illusion perpetuated by the whimsical Roz Chast cover illustration. 

This book was not laugh-out-loud funny. It did have sentences like "The endless proliferating monk may be read as a figure for scholarly mimetic contagion" as well as words like "patronymic," thrown out into the prose without explanation, expecting the reader to have deep familiarity with the concept. 

But, thankfully, Batuman is a fine writer. Early in the book, she soliloquizes on a writers' workshop she once attended; one designed, she thought, to make writing "a matter of overcoming bad habits - of omitting needless words." Thank goodness she didn't ascribe to this philosophy of writing because though her book is peppered with dense, incomprehensible lit crit and philosophical mumbojumbo, sentences like "Miguel stood out from among the other library workers, who fit a more or less Dostoevskian mold: a tiny old woman whose organism seemed designed to combine maximum disgruntledness with minimum body mass ..." more than made up for the moments, the many moments, in which I had no idea what she was talking about.

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