Posted by: zhiv | March 23, 2010

Reading Notes: Elif Batuman and Keith Gessen

A little more than a month ago I read a glowing review in the NY Times of Elif Batuman’s new book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It sounded fantastic and perhaps I made a note, perhaps I didn’t, but at any rate I forgot about it for a couple of weeks. And then I was in the bookstore and couldn’t remember anything about the book besides the fact that it had something to do with Russian Literature. I went back to my office and did some digging, which took more time than I would have liked, but I finally found the review again. I ordered the book on Amazon, something I don’t do very often, or at least I thought I did, and I also bought a copy of The Pearl of Orr’s Island by HB Stowe, expecting to continue reading Maine novels. I looked into Batuman, and was intrigued to discover that she was going to be reading her book downtown in just a few days.

I waited for the book the to show up but it didn’t and the night of the reading came around. I never do these things, even though they’re easy and common enough here in the big city. I felt obligated to come home even though no one needed me to be there, and the message that “if you want to go you should go” still took awhile to seep in. It wasn’t a big deal. I got there three or four minutes late. There were forty or fifty people in the library auditorium, maybe more. Batuman was excellent, smart, funny and disarming, with all kinds of hilarious things to say about graduate school and lots of thoughtful comments about literature. They were selling copies of the book outside and I was going to buy one so that I could go home and read it, but I thought my Amazon copy might have shown up that day. It hadn’t.

More time goes by, the books from Amazon never come: did I fail to complete the transaction? Who knows. In the meantime my daughter comes home for Spring Break. She’s reading Middlemarch and she loves it. I’m a happy man and father. She finishes Middlemarch at the end of the first week and takes care of her other work, trying to figure out her junior year abroad options. The second week goes by and I go out to lunch with her on Friday, just three days ago now, and we eat next door to Barnes and Noble, excited about picking up some books.

I buy Batuman’s book for her. The first clerk I ask hasn’t heard of it but she sees the title and says it looks interesting, and the second clerk, behind her, says it’s in the “new and notable” section, which probably helps to sell a lot of books and establish authors. My daughter has to write a paper on the The Decameron for her “Women and Gender in Renaissance Italy” course, but she doesn’t have her own copy. We buy that and she wants a book of Keats’s poetry and I’m thinking no way, we have anthologies and who knows what on the shelves, but she finds a new Norton Critical Edition of Keats, published 2009, and she knows I’m a sucker for those.

While she’s over in the poetry section, not a place I like to spend too much time, I look for and find Keith Gessen’s 2008 book “All the Sad Young Literary Men.” Batuman credited Gessen with launching her career and publishing her in his journal, n+1. In her talk she mentioned how she thought she was writing a novel about her experiences in graduate school and Gessen published one of her essays and then started bugging her about writing the next one, and that’s more or less how the book took shape. Probably less, as a big part of the reason why I went to see Batuman was to try to find out the details of her wunderkind status, how she managed to publish in The New Yorker (which I had missed) and Harpers (which I rarely read). The answer, apparently, was Gessen.

I had heard about Sad Young Literary Men when it was published, perhaps glanced at a review somewhere. It might have mentioned Gessen the editor and new century man of letters–it must have–but I missed that part and only took in the smallest bit of information about the book: it was ambitious, a strong debut, not amazing or perfect or unbelievable but still worthy and significant and very smart. Looking back, this review must have been saying that Gessen is rather big news and you’ve perhaps heard of him, and now he’s written a very fine first novel and he’s even bigger news, although not everybody is going to like him or his book.

After Batuman had mentioned Gessen and n+1, I was intrigued and did some digging during that week. Google linked Gessen to blogger Emily Gould, and I was quickly immersed in the world of New York City clubs and young society and gossip and Gawker, of all things, getting sidetracked. Who was this infamous blogger, what is all this? Wikipedia sends me to a New York Post story by zhiv, about becoming the subject of gossip himself because Emily Gould has to blog about everything she does, and I print out Emily Gould’s long NY Times magazine article, “Exposed,” her version of the events. It’s all a study in social media, which I’m vaguely and semi-interested in, especially since I saw the film We Live in Public and wrote about it. But I have my limits and it’s a waste of time for the most part, certainly far afield from my own approach here to blogging, and I never figured out the exact timing of the connection between Gould and Gessen. Somewhere I lost the thread on Gessen and n+1, which would have been more interesting.

But I remembered him and his novel when I was in the bookstore, and I liked the look of it and wanted to read it and added it to the stack. I knew enough about Gessen now, without really knowing anything. My daughter didn’t have anything to do in the afternoon and by the time I came home from work she had read 100 pages of Batuman’s book and she was loving it. She was leaving Sunday morning and she hoped to finish before she left so that she could leave it behind for me. She came close, falling about 20 pages short, and forgot it in the rush anyway. I started reading Gessen’s book on Friday night, and then read more on Saturday and finished it on Sunday, not too long after taking her to the airport. In some ways, I suppose, this little reading tangent can be related to reading Academic Novels, and I’ll try to consider that when I write about Gessen’s book, and as I start reading Batuman.


  1. The Batuman book sounds great, and I just added it to my list. As for the Gessen, I just read your review, and I’ll admit I’m uncertain about the subject matter. The title itself is a big turn-off. Does it try to appeal to women at all? It’s not necessary, I suppose, but it certainly makes me hesitate.

    • I’m reading Batuman today and I know you’ll love it. Gessen is more complicated. Don’t let the title get in the way. You might want to start by looking at n+1, which might give you a better opinion of Gessen (or not), though I’ve only looked at it once or twice. The book is good. Since I wrote my post I’ve been able to read some reviews, and there’s a really good one by Joyce Carol Oates in NYRB, and she notes that “Gessen’s young men are attracted to young women of far more intellectual substance and promise (than Fitzgerald’s).” I’d say it’s worth reading because Gessen’s very young (as are you) and very smart, a good, clever, reflective writer. Not that this will necessarily be a significant book by a writer from your generation, though it might well become one, but it takes a shot. It’s ambitious but not nearly as obnoxious as it might seem. Somehow, it could be more endearing and engaging, but I think it perhaps reads better now than it did 18 months ago. I’ve been thinking about writing about it some more since I did some reading about it, and you might be making me do that. But it still tilts toward boy book rather than girl book, and I’m not sure what that Hobgoblin is reading lately, but he might like the “Portrait of the Graduate Student” better than you.

  2. Thanks! I suspect that Hobgoblin would be even less likely than I am to try the Gessen, but you’ll be happy to hear that he’s been reading lots of Chandler lately. He has a big book that has four long “tales” and two novels and is reading his way through. I’m not sure there’s enough in the Gessen to make me want to invest the time, but I’m glad to know more details. Batuman I should get to at some point.

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