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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

3.64  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,314 Ratings  ·  488 Reviews
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year


No one who read Elif Batuman's first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. "Babel in California" told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about
ebook, 304 pages
Published February 16th 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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There are flashes of charm in this book, counterbalanced by some very tedious patches indeed. Elif Batuman is apparently well-connected enough to have Roz Chast do the artwork for the book cover. She also seems to have a remarkable talent for self-promotion. This book has generated a considerable amount of buzz, and some near-hagiographic reviews.

I don't quite understand why. If one wanted to view things uncharitably, Ms Batuman spent seven somewhat aimless years as a graduate student in compar
I've been wanting to read this one for a while, since it was blurbed (I think) in the NY Times or on NPR or on - or all of the above. As someone who reads Russian books (and enjoys them!) and is interested in Russian cultural studies, I thought this book was written for me. I didn't understand the title at first - shouldn't it read The Possessed El: This One is for You? But I got over that and then began to wonder, "Who are these other, alleged, 'People Who Read Them'? I want names!"

Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them emerged, in my imagination, through conversations of this nature:

Elif: I'm writing an article about the weird academicians who showed up for the Babel conference.

Elif's friend/colleague (EFC): You should turn that into a book.

Elif: There's not enough material for a book.

EFC: So? Just make it longer. Add your weird trips to all those countries that used to be part of Russia but aren't anymore.

Elif: What would
Mar 09, 2010 Melanie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: eastern_europe, 2010
I've known people like Elif Batuman--brilliant people who can't reply to the question "How are you today?" without a.) quoting literature, and then b.) quoting some obscure but relevant work of critical theory (and then maybe c.) adding an interesting bit of historical trivia, just for fun). It can take awhile to realize that, for this kind of person, that is actually how they feel--they've answered your question, you just might have to work a little harder to translate it into an "I'm fine" or ...more
Mar 13, 2010 Janet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russia
Read like wildfire, though personally I could have used more, more Russian books--and a bit less random student adventures--the Samarkhand stuff got too long for me. The last essay, I think, the Possessed, was the best. She's got a great way with turn of phrase, very funny, wonderful sense of characterization, and especially the spot-on Russians. Would have loved that mind turned even more to the literature itself. Looking forward to reading her academic work, even hoping she'll someday do somet ...more
Alec Scott
A lovely wit infuses this book, but she gets sidetracked. Initially she writes (beautifully) about her reaction to the great Russian writers -- and that's what the title promises the book will be about. But then she starts to tell us, detail for detail, about her rather hapless study journeys to Russia, and the whole thing become a bagatelle -- slightly amusing but insignificant. Still, she's great at thumbnail sketches of people -- as witness: "Cowper, best remembed as the author of the hymn "G ...more
Jul 03, 2010 Ed rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A collection of essays on Russian literature that is both funny and learned by an academic who writes very well. Excellent short discussion of Anna Karenina, The Possessed (hence the title although it is also about those who get possessed by Russian literature and by the study of language as language) and Isaac Babel with a side trip to Samarkand which seems to have become one of the least romantic and dreariest places on the old Silk Road.

Her description of academic conferences in St. Petersbu
May 08, 2016 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’m inclined to classify ‘The Possessed’ with Underfoot in Show Business and You Must Go and Win: Essays as ‘very funny and clever anecdotal autobiographies of the professional and personal lives of women who I’d like to be friends with’. This one has the added advantage of being concerned with postgraduate life, although PhDs in the US are very different to those in the UK. As I understand it, across the pond they take longer, involve exams and compulsory teaching, and constitute more of an aca ...more
May 14, 2010 Silvia rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
UNEVEN is the best word to describe this book. After the stellar review in the NYT and the hype around it (sold out in some bookstores), I expected "The Possessed" to be, well, much more than what it is. That's the danger with great reviews, I guess..
Elif Batuman is a preternaturally gifted writer, very funny, amazingly knowledgeable and wise for her age (is she thirty yet??), but some of her essays are more patch-up work than accomplished pieces. Especially the Summer in Samarkand ones. As she
May 12, 2010 Roderick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some reviewers seem not to like this, claiming that the author is "unlikable" and "shallow." How anyone can make either of these claims having read this book is quite beyond me. Elif Batuman seems almost irresistibly charming, and shallow is definitely not the word for her. Regardless of her interpretations of the works at hand (and I can't claim to have read much past the obvious Tolstoy and Dostoevsky classics), her writing about those works and authors is tremendously impressive, her descript ...more
Sep 05, 2009 eb rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this book, and I'm not sure I've read anything quite like it before. Batuman is a comp lit PhD, and in The Possessed, she blends her academician's knowledge and critical vocabulary with dryly hilarious stories about herself and her experiences reading and studying Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the other Russian greats. Batuman's voice is unique, which is one of those claims you encounter on every book jacket ever printed, but hers really is. She's funny, compassionate, observant, plainspoken, and ...more
Instructive, illuminating, intelligent, funny, accessible.

In places, it both romanticizes and demystifies the life of a modern intellectual. She'll reference Dostoevsky and Safeway supermarkets in the same paragraph, or Tolstoy conferences and shampoo.

She stays true to her intention of exploring how to bring your life closer to your favorite books. This is readable and charming. As time goes by I probably won't remember the literary details as I will the descriptions of Samarkand, Stanford, St.

তার নামের মত এলিফ বাতুমানের আর সব কিছুই বেশ সবতনতর। বাতুমান জাতিগতভাবে তুরকি -- তবে জনম, বেড়ে ওঠা, পড়াশোনা সব মারকিন যুকতরাষটরে। সটযানফোরড বিশববিদযালয়ে কমপারেটিভ লিটারেচার নিয়ে পিএইচডি করার অভিজঞতা নিয়ে বেশ কটি পরবনধ লিখে সুনাম কুড়িয়েছিলেন। সেই পরবনধগুলোর সংকলিত রূপ এই বই। "Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" - শিরোনাম থেকেই লেখিকার আগরহ এবং বইয়ের বিষয়বসতু সমপরকে একটা সমযক ধারণা পাওয়া যায়।

তার ভাষযমতে বাতুমান অসমভব লমবা - পরায় ছয় ফুট। বইয়ের পরথম পরবনধেই তিনি বলছেন, আয়রনিক
Thomas Hübner

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman's book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky's novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family
Feb 02, 2012 Josh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book I wish I'd written - but then doesn't saying that show that I've missed the deeper lesson of The Possessed, meaning the lesson of all fairy tales, which as Joseph Campbell put it goes something like "Where you stumble, there is your treasure"? Well then, let's try it again. Elif Batuman is a romantic soul and a romantic soul can fall in love with anything; so her book - which explores, at least as well as Huey Lewis or Drew Barrymore, the unlikely, overwhelming and occasionally creepy Pow ...more
May 24, 2011 Brian rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ostensibly, I'm in the target audience for this book, since 19th century Russian literature is one of my favorite eras and Dostoevsky is my favorite author. However, this book takes too many boring and seemingly inconsequential sidetracks. The book is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" and Batuman reads Russian books, so really any tangential topic is fair game. Technically not misleading, but not what I was expecting.

The book is composed of 4 essays on Russia
Bookmarks Magazine
Apr 06, 2010 Bookmarks Magazine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: may-jun-2010
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 ex ...more
Max Nemtsov
Mar 21, 2016 Max Nemtsov rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: useful-theory
Довольно потешные на первый взгляд записки читателя (и не обязательно писателя при этом). Но это — книжка про книжки, всё, как мы любим, — независимо от того, захочется нам при этом читать великорусскую литературу или нет. Как при любом правильном чтении, повествование постоянно заходит в какие-то тупики, ветвится, мы останавливаемся подобрать всякую фигню по углам, не соображая толком, понадобится это нам или нет. Ракетка Льва Толстого? Ледяной дом? Гусь Бабеля?

Книжка сбивчивая и дендритная — у
Jul 22, 2010 Kaara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I know little about Russian novelists, and even less about literary critical theory. I didn't much know what Elif Batuman was talking about most of the time, but that didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying her account of the absurd, insular world of Russian and Soviet literary scholars.

Batuman, writing about her graduate studies in Soviet literary traditions and languages at Stanford and abroad, is a damn good storyteller, funny and sharp, sometimes brutally so. Her signature style is marked by
Mar 12, 2010 Andie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was very reminiscent at first of Sarah Vowell- if Sarah Vowell, instead of her love of history and morbidity, was obsessed with Russian literature. This book made me laugh out loud quite a few times. But it was more than just a light hearted memoir with hilarious anecdotes about, among other things, attending a conference at Tolstoy's house and attempting to find out if he'd been murdered.

Confession: I have never read a single Russian novel. Not even the classics. Sorry, Conversations
Sep 17, 2011 Bob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Bob by: reviewed in Stanford Today
Shelves: russia
Anticipating an "introduction" to Russian literature, the book turned out to be a memoir on life as a graduate student, seeking an identity ("As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey..."), and the joy of relating what we read to how we live. Her style is no small part of the work's delight.
On literary criticism: "...someone who likes to keep to a minimum her visits to Planet Derrida -- that land where all seemingly secondary phenomena are actually primary, and
May 13, 2012 Booksy rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2012
I had great expectations for this book, being a Russian literature lover myself, I was very interested to read about the authors adventures while studying classical Russian novels and they way she felt about the characters, the stories etc.

What a disappointment this book was: it is full of clumsy segues, far-fetched comparisons (e.g., comparing "Anna Karenina" to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", why???), artificially constructed parallels between the events of Russian history and the author'
Apr 25, 2010 zan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
When I came here to mark this book as "read," I was irked by a negative review that painted this book as some sort of grad student vanity project, and suggested that instead of reading this we read the academic texts on Russian literature that she has apparently ignored (but somehow remembers to reference in a thorough bibliography?), texts that have nothing to do with Elif Batuman's own experience of Russian literature.

I'm sorry, but I don't think that's the point.

The thing that Batuman does be
Jason Pettus
Dec 13, 2010 Jason Pettus rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

Regular readers know that I've become a big fan recently of the so-called "NPR-worthy" book; and by that I mean a nonfiction title that combines the research of academia with the quirkiness and readability of the beach-and-airport crowd, delivering a lively but thought-provoking manuscript by the end that
Asma Fedosia
Apr 26, 2013 Asma Fedosia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A candid memoir of the author's graduate school years in comparative literature, particularly, the summer in which she studied Old Uzbek language and literature in Uzbekistan before teaching Russian in California. Uzbekistan became independent from Russia in 1991, so, these essays involve the wider geographical range of Russian literature and history from Russia and Central Asia (Sufi poetry and Attar's The Conference of the Birds). A fascinating bit of St Petersburg history was The House of Ice ...more
Apr 22, 2010 Charlotte rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Okay, so this was awesome. I learned a lot about the Russians and how crazy/smart/depressed they were/are. At points I thought that all academic writing should be like this book. At other points, I wanted to move a little more slowly through some of the discoveries, but it's okay. Maybe I wouldn't actually feel that was if the desire was realized. Basically, this is a book about what happens if you go to comp lit grad school to study Russian literature, and how people become possessed by literat ...more
This book turned out to be a delight to read, even if (like me) you’ve never heard of some of the Russian authors she writes about. I have also blogged about Batuman’s subversive attitude to the modern American approach to teaching creative writing, ( and I like her style. She is funny, self-deprecating, knowledgeable and immensely entertaining.
To see the rest of this review please visit
Jun 14, 2014 Ellie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I never thought one could write a book about writing a dissertation. Elif Batuman disproved me by not only doing that, but also writing an exciting, almost crime-novel level of exciting tale of writing a dissertation where books and their authors give life to all sorts of intellectual intrigue. Yes, you can get intrigued by that, especially if the author is Batuman. Some of the intrigue is typical crime-novel matter, like investigating, from the distance of a century, whether Tolstoy was murdere ...more
Melinda Blaloch
Mar 26, 2016 Melinda Blaloch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. In fact, I couldn't put it down. Elif is funny, for one thing, in a sort of dry, literate, civilized way. I was constantly chuckling out loud - really, outloud - as I read. She also takes you along on her adventures all over the world, both literary and physical, but it's not the well trod tourist itinerary, trust me. She takes you along to odd corners of the earth and makes for a witty, funny, irreverent travel companion. And she introduces you to hidden little nooks of liter ...more
Taken from the articles found in journals like n+1, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman combines them into this memoir. The Possessed may be a collection journal articles, but combined together it forms more of a memoir of Batuman’s academic life. Starting with a conference she was involved with at Stanford University about Isaac Babel in the first article “Babel in California”.

I mention the first article “Babel in California” because I think it repres
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Imprinted Lives: ...: Elif's fascination with Russian literature 11 23 Apr 26, 2013 05:58PM  
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Elif Batuman (born in 1977, in New York City) is an American author, academic, and journalist. Born in New York to Turkish parents, she grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from Harvard College, and received her doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford University, where she taught. Batuman is currently the writer-in-residence at Koç University. While in graduate school, Batuman studied th ...more
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“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 really are the same thing.” 8 likes
“A few times I saw a chicken walking around importantly, like some kind of a regional manager.” 8 likes
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