- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (February 16, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374532184
- ISBN-13: 978-0374532185
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 0.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #47,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Paperback – February 16, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays. Stanford lit prof Batuman (recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award) gleans clues to the conundrums of human existence by recalling scenes from her grad-student days in academe and exotic settings like Samarkand. A Tolstoy conference sparks her investigation into the possible murder, both physical and metaphysical, of the great man. She spends a summer in Samarkand reading impenetrable works in Old Uzbek as a window into Central Asia's enigmatic present. (Her baffled précis of one legend reads in part, Bobur had an ignorant cousin, a soldier, who wasted all his time on revenge killings and on staging fights between chicken and sheep.) The book climaxes in a Dostoyevskian psychodrama that swirls around a magnetic grad student in the comp-lit department. Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of mimetic desire vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why. (Feb.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years (Dallas Morning News), Batuman's intriguing blend of travelogue, autobiography, and literary criticism offers a fresh perspective on some of Russia's greatest authors. Despite its challenging subject matter, The Possessed is accessible and entertaining, written with sly humor and a keen eye for absurdity. Some critics considered its essays uneven, but they still praised Batuman's infectious delight in literature and her examination of the many ways we can live lives more attuned to our favorite books. Perhaps the New York Times said it best: "She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head."
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Top Customer Reviews
Some of the reviews here complain about the book being quirky or not serious enough. But if you think a serious work of Russian scholarship will have a cartoon cover--you've got your head up your butt!
The book is fun and offbeat and more of a memoir of a woman who's compelled to follow an odd academic path that anything else. It's for people who have a sense of humor as well as of the absurd.
I found myself thinking of Emerson and Richardson as I read Ms Batuman's book of essays about her adventures in reading, writing, and studying--first at Harvard and then at Stanford University. What becomes obvious is that she is passionately committed to language and reading and that her writing interests arise from her reading. She seems to be one of those persons whose reading becomes as important as everyday experience and colors and dominates the quotidian.As Cyril Connolly wrote: "Words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living." My sense of Ms Batuman is that she has purposed to focus her attention on a deep reading of books and life rather follow what she calls a path of mimetic desire. She explicitly states her theme at the end of her introduction: "instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs. . . .what if instead you went to Balzac's house, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him--and then started writing? That is the idea behind this book."
And a very good idea it is, too. As she leads us through her studies of Russian literature, we discover increasingly interesting connections that prove that real life is indeed stranger than fiction. Two examples illustrate her project's purpose: in her chapter entitled "Babel in California," she recounts a find in her reading and researching of Babel's documents of a reference to a captured American pilot named Frank Mosher. Frank Mosher was an alias used by Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the creator and producer of the film King Kong. In the 20s he fought on the side of the White Russians and Poles against the Bolsheviks. With this information she finds a wealth of information that informs the making of the movie and its politics. In her final chapter, entitled "The Possessed," she uses her reading of Dostoevsky's Demons to explain one of the central ideas of the book: that desire for the other is the impetus behind our need to be the other. She uses this psychological phenomena to explain certain writers' choice to not only write but the manner and method in which they write. "Don Quixote, it turns out, doesn't really want any of his ostensible objects; what he wants is to become one with his mediator: Amadis of Gaul." (264) She continues by quoting René Girard, author of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, who believes "mimetic desire is the fundamental content of the Western novel." And who also concludes that this mimetic desire in fiction leads to conflict and ultimately transcendence. As Girard concludes: "The hero sees himself in the rival he loathes; he renounces the 'differences' suggested by hatred."
Girard's thesis controls and supports the thesis of the book, which explains the conclusion. She writes:"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find it."
If you like literature and traveling, this book is for you. However, there is much more to this collection: there is an almost metaphysical examination of writing, reading and their impetus. There is also the beginning of a trend; a whiff of the zeitgeist, signaling a change in the wind. In the world replete with escapist fiction and film, I feel a turning--a shift toward more serious subjects and a call for closer reading. As Coleridge once explained, there are four types of readers: the hourglass, the sponge,the jelly-bag,and the Golconda. Ms Batuman is obviously the latter; a Golconda is the reader par excellence--a person who, like a "high-grader," the person who goes through a mine and pockets only the richest lumps of ore.
Very witty, snarky, enjoyable, great book.
That is, until I read this book. This book starts by explaining a love story of sorts that isnt even a "real Russian story", but to me thats what this book is, a great love story. Her adventures lead her all over the Russian landscape, both in books and in real life. They cause her to ask questions which are intrinsic to being Slavic it seems, "When you love someone, what is it that you actually love?" and "who actually killed a man many are 100% sure died because of a stroke". And listening to her talk with so much care in her heart for these books, which have scared me ever since I tried to read War and Peace in its original Russian and French double type, I began to see that my fear was wrongly placed. It was really in the rash move of a student who knew only little Russian to try and take on the Russian Epic.
Since picking up this book I have bought, or found, 25 russian books for my kindle or in properback (in english except for one) which I will be reading as I sit in the Post-Soviet world again, in my own version of a Summer in Samarkand.
To those who say its too expensive for a kindle I beg to differ. Her ability to get me interested in writers (who you can get almost all, if not all, of their books for Free from the kindle), to get me into the lives and discussions about the books, to basically show me the literary criticism field, all without me realizing what I was doing, is more than worth it. I hope she gets most of it, but even if she doesn't, I will be buying this book again.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It perfectly captures the craziness of academia, being a grad student, and the silliness that passes for...Read more