Ben Smithgall

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Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





The Idiot

By Elif Batuman

Finished reading on November 14, 2019

Batuman is a great writer, and it shines through here. She wrote one of my favorite recent pieces in The New Yorker about Japan’s rental family industry. There are individual strokes of brilliance in The Idiot, Batuman’s dry wit manages to poke great fun at people who Taleb would label the “Intellectual Yet Idiot” class. In one great passage, she complains about a literature class:

One morning, on my way to a lecture on Balzac, it came to me with great clarity that there was no way that that guy, the professor, was going to tell me anything useful. No doubt he knew many useful things, but he wasn’t going to say them; rather, he was going to tell us again that Balzac’s Paris was extremely comprehensive.

However, these little snippets are really all that sustains the book. We have a number of these bizarre interstitial scenes, but overall, the book seems to mostly just be treating water around them. The main character, Selin, seems to be a passive receiver of the world around her. Her major acts of creation seem to be largely bundled up in email, still a recent invention in the time when the book was published (which leads to some fun asides about emacs and the UNIX program finger that reminded me a bit of the ravings of Abulafia, the fictional word processing software from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum). This leads to a major theme in the book: when you correspond to someone over text, is that person the same as the person who you would actually meet and talk with? Selin doesn’t seem to be sure.