A PhD memoirist who shops for books after few nightcaps

Elif Batuman says what makes a book good is that it is compulsively readable. Elif Batuman says what makes a book good is that it is compulsively readable. (Timothy Archibald)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2010

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Elif Batuman’s smart and hilarious first book, “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” made humanities PhDs everywhere wonder whether they too could parlay their degrees into best-selling memoirs. Batuman, who grew up in New Jersey and completed her doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford, writes frequently about books and authors, most recently covering the Kafkaesque conflict over Kafka’s papers for The New York Times Magazine. She spoke from her home in San Francisco.

Your writing is largely driven by books. What are you reading?

I’m reading “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, which I’m really enjoying. It’s an illustration of all the things I was wondering whether it was still possible to do in fiction — and it is. There’s an extended reference to “War and Peace,” and I see his project as continuous with what Tolstoy was trying to do.

Were you a “Corrections” fan?

I actually didn’t read it. I have a Kindle, and I got the preview and read those pages with interest, but then I somehow didn’t buy the rest.

The Kindle changed my reading habits, because I now buy books pretty much only when I’m drunk, and late at night. I had a serious Agatha Christie drunk dialing problem, but I’ve exhausted Agatha Christie and moved on. It’s a good sign that I bought a contemporary book that people are talking about.

Do you find contemporary fiction hard to read? Your recent piece on Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era” suggested as much.

I do, but I’ve been lucky a few times in a row. I just read “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson. I thought that was amazing. She just found this very persuasive and moving voice. And I just heard Yiyun Li read from “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” and loved it. I’m definitely going to read her book.

What’s problematic about MFA programs’ influence on American fiction?

Making technique the top priority, and teaching people to be extremely good writers and trusting that good books are going to come from that.

What makes something a good book?

For me, it’s a compulsive readability, and that it’s not just a pretty object that shines in nice ways when you hold it in the light. A lot of fiction doesn’t answer a question that any reasonable person would ever ask.

Given the subject of “The Possessed,” are you reading Russian literature?

Russian literature got me interested in what literature means. But I’m not reading anything Russian now. A lot is determined by writing assignments. For this Kafka assignment, I read a ton of Kafka.

Did your sleuth work about his archives change how you thought about the literature? Definitely. It’s an interesting question. So you want to understand Tolstoy: One way is to go to his house, which has been turned into a museum. You can see his bed and his table with his cough drops on it. That place obviously has more to do with him than the corner of Summit Avenue and Walnut Street in New Jersey. But what exactly do you learn? Or to what extent are Kafka’s friend’s secretary’s daughters living in a country that Kafka never visited, part of his milieu?

Between the two columns of life and literature, there’s always something missing. What is that magic thing, and can you ever get at it? There’s something appealing, and fundamentally comic, about this literal-minded accumulation of material facts — about going places and just being obtuse about it: “I’m going to stare at these cats in this woman’s backyard until they tell me something.” But it might also be completely wrong. It’s another kind of literary mystery.

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