This week we’re taking a closer look at Powell’s Pick of the Month Either/Or by Elif Batuman.
One of my very favorite memories from my first semester at college was the afternoon my freshman poetry workshop met up with another poetry workshop to “celebrate” the work we’d done by reading our (very bad) poems out loud for each other. We went around in a circle; I read a poem I had (predictably) written about books; and then we got to the two standouts: a young woman and a young man, recent exes, who cleared their throats and, while their eyes watered (a detail I swear to), they read their poems out loud.
Poems that were about their heartbreak. About the betrayal of their ex holding someone else’s hand, kissing someone else, not waking up in their bed anymore. These 19-year-olds glared at each other, cried, and recited their sonnets.
It was so silly, so great, so perfect.
I kept coming back to that afternoon while reading Either/Or
, Elif Batuman’s follow up to her acclaimed, The Idiot
picks up right where The Idiot
left off: Selin is back at Harvard for her sophomore year; she’s back with her friends and her books and her classes; her ill-fated crush, Ivan, is as physically absent as he was emotionally absent the year before; and she’s decided maybe it’s time to expand her repertoire, whatever that might mean.
Selin’s “experiments” in autonomy are painfully relatable. She gets drunk, goes to parties where no one says anything interesting, is prescribed SSRIs (“Was it possible that Zoloft would cause me to like rap music?”), recovers from hangovers, rejects men, has lofty discussions with friends, hates the commissary food. It’s all a practice in figuring out what she’s interested in and how she can slot those interests into the narrative she’s actively building around herself.
It’s all a practice in figuring out what she’s interested in and how she can slot those interests into the narrative she’s actively building around herself.
If you’re here, reading this, it's probably because you’re a lot like me, which means you’re probably also a lot like Selin: the kind of person that sees the world through the lens of a reader. Just as we might, Selin over-identifies with what she reads. She’s in that smooshy, young place where she’s still trying to figure out who she is, and realizing that the lessons, or non-lessons, that she’s taking away from books don’t quite tally with her own experience.
There was something so lovely and pleasant about being back in that youthful, naïve, and curious headspace with Selin, being reminded of those days when you were still figuring out how to tell your own story and what kind of story you wanted to tell, back when looking across a room full of 19-year-old “poets” at a recent ex and reading your rhymed pentameters about how his hand felt in yours wasn’t embarrassing, but empowering.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month