by Casey Pope
I consider myself a slow reader. I’m also an avid reader. The calculus of these two characteristics combined does not equal a favorable condition for someone (me) who currently has (stored on a Kindle) 48 books in the “Reading” folder, 40 books in the “To Read” folder, and an additional 189 samples of books in the “Downloaded Samples” folder.
Because of my leisurely approach to reading, I was surprised to learn that the number of books I read this year was almost a book a week (47). Full disclosure though: about a 35% of the books were “read” by listening, i.e., I’ve embraced audio books as a way to increase my biblio-productivity, and it’s obviously worked.
Okay, enough with the backstory. But before I get to the best book I read, here’s a disclaimer: This is not a “Best of 2018 List” per se because I’ve considered all books I read this year and not just those that were published this year. Also, I’m selecting only one winner, so, not actually a list (though there are runners-up and honorable mentions mentioned briefly). Besides, there are, like, 5,000 end-of-the-year listicles out there that adhere strictly to judging this year’s publications and I’m thinking that you don’t really need me to regurgitate the same.
So, here we go.
And the winner is…
I’ve read this book three times since its publication. I also just downloaded the audiobook version to be listened to in the near future. This is the most times I’ve read a book in such a short period. It’s not only my fave read of the year but possibly top ten of all time. Yes, I love this novel, if that wasn’t clear.
Now that I think about it, The Idiot would’ve won last year too if I had been writing up one of these blogs in 2017, thus a would-be back-to-back winner! In the interest of fairness and variety, I will avoid reading the book in 2019. (Actually, this is only partially true— I will be listening to the aforementioned audiobook version, so…)
Anyway, I was a fan of Batuman’s work before the publication of The Idiot, which by the way is her first novel. My initial foray into her work was her 2010 non-fiction book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. She’s also written a number of articles for the New Yorker, including her recently very-much discussed piece about the Japanese rent-a-family industry.
The Idiot takes place in 1995, and in general, is essentially an attempting-to-come-of-age story with the backdrop of entry into college life (at Harvard) while navigating the tricky terrain of a profound infatuation with a fellow student.
Our college freshman and heroine of the novel is Selin. She becomes smitten with an older student, a tall Hungarian named Ivan. He’s studying mathematics. They’ve spoken to each other in class but the real connection happens over email. (A new and exciting form of communication and technology back then!) Selin really likes Ivan’s emails.
The pleasures that I derived from this book are many. Let’s start with the prose. It’s the type of writing that lets you know that the author is preternaturally gifted and is passionate about words. And if you, as the reader, are also a writer (like I am), the quality of the writing can humble you (aka me) to where you maybe reconsider your career choice as a writer and definitely don’t quit your day job. For a prose snob like me, that’s saying something. Then there’s the voice: witty, cerebral, wry, charming, and relatable.
A particularly enjoyable passage was Selin’s consternation with, of all things, the Beatles:
I was troubled by the Beatles, by the contradiction between their jaunty, harmoniously innocent warbling, and the calculating cynical worldview that seemed to underlie it. All the time they had been pleasing that girl, the Beatles had been keeping a tally, resenting her for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return. They went on about how they worked like a dog to make money to buy her things, and in exchange she had to give them everything. What if she didn’t? What if she didn’t know how?
If you are (an unfortunate) someone who is not familiar with Beatles songs, then the passage probably falls flat, which is too bad and not Batuman’s fault. But so this is who Selin is: Able to psychoanalyze the Beatles’ greatest hits compilation and come out of the other side afflicted by pop music existential angst. This is who Batuman is: Able to deftly massage Beatles songs into a harangue by Selin railing against the status quo while concurrently questioning how one might fit into that status quo if one so chose.
This brings us to the tension of the story: The give-and-take between Selin and Ivan, and of Selin wavering between youth and adulthood. If you’ve ever been a teenager straddling The Transition Point, you will most likely appreciate (and/or cringe at) how Batuman forces Selin to confront the many questions about the world that make her anxious and typically lead to more questions, some of which are unanswerable without the life experience that Selin just doesn’t have yet.
And, of course, there’s Selin’s self-doubt of wondering about her place in the world, her attraction to Ivan, Ivan’s attraction (?) to her. By the way? Ivan has a girlfriend. And sends mixed signals. There are humiliating moments for Selin, both real and imagined.
But it’s not all just youthful malaise. It’s also about the wonder of discovery, of seeing the world from Selin’s point of view. She’s intelligent and book smart, and at times, has a subdued determination bolstered by a hangdog charm, and yet she’s also immature and vulnerable with moments of social awkwardness. It’s a joy to read Batuman’s words describing Selin’s intricate observations filtered through her complicated and layered lens. These details give us a fully realized character who is truly engaging (emotionally, intellectually and empathetically), which, to me, is the bedrock of a compelling story.
Here’s a sample of Selin’s witty melancholia in response to Svetlana (Selin’s fellow student and friend) who’s articulating her theory about making people fall in love:
Svetlana: “Sometimes I think there could be two kinds of love. There could be one rare kind that just naturally exists between certain people. Then there’s the more common one that’s constructed.”
Selin: It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions. Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds of thousands of pages of distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.
The true gift of this book for me is that it’s, like, comfort food (Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, deep-dish pizza, hot fudge chocolate cake, Cool Ranch Doritos) despite the story being about the struggles of youth. It’s the voice, the tone, the characters (including/especially the peripheral ones), the nostalgia of pre-adulthood innocence, the sweet moments of romance and/or the longing for it, Selin’s (understandable) mistakes and her little triumphs, and the coaxing of my sympathy and empathy for her. I like her. I can relate. And I’m willing to go on this journey with Selin, while ensconced in Batuman’s words, over and over again.
The “best of” books in my literary history are more than just about good entertainment, though that certainly is a part of them. These books are of a quality that is both inspirational and aspirational. They push me to excel in my own work and to continue to level up in terms of quality, artistry, and entertainment. And in that sense, The Idiot is in good company and more than qualifies as the best book I read this year.
So, congratulations, Elif Batuman! Your debut novel, The Idiot, is my most cherished read of 2018. Hopefully, this accolade is just as good as, or even better than, almost winning the Pulitzer!
2. The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (MCD, September 2018). This book is on a number of 2018 Best Of Lists.
3. My Brilliant Friend & The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, September 2012 & 2013). This is a bit of a cheat because, two books. Let’s just say it’s a tie between them. Also, I recommend the HBO series.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, April 2013).
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, July 2018).
Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht (Tin House Books, June 2018).
The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carre (Penguin Books, Reprint Edition, November 2018). The miniseries on AMC is quite good.
A Category All Their Own:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Bayback Books, Anniversary Edition, November 2006).
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Bayback Books, Anniversary Edition, April 2012).