Idiot (Batuman) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for The Idiot … and then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Selin as she enters Harvard in the fall of 1995? Innocent? Passive? Smart, of course … but in what ways? And how is she not so smart in other ways?

2. What about Svetlana? Describe her? How is she different from Selin? What is it about Svetlana, as well as other classmates, that Selin envies?

3. Comparing herself to those classmates, Selin says, "I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages … and nothing happened." What does she mean that nothing has happened? What does she want to happen?

4. Talk about the crush Selina develops on Ivan. What do you think of him? What is it that attracts Selin to him and makes her fall for him? How does email, which is new in 1995, affect the tenor of their correspondence? What was your feeling toward Selin as she became increasingly infatuated?

5. Selin's wishes "to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity." Does she live up to her ideal? If you were to elucidate — in three words — your own values for living, what words would those be?

6. Talk about Selin's attachment to reading and to literature. Consider, for example, that she buys an overcoat because it reminded her of Gogol. Why is literature such a potent force in her life?

7. Selin believes that you can know what books really mean: "You could get the meaning, or you could miss it completely." Is her assessment of literature correct? Do you think that literature should "mean" something, that books have some overarching, or underlying, significance? Or are books, some books, say, primarily a compendium of observations and insights as to the nature of life? Does Elif Batuman's novel have meaning … or a meaning?

8. What is the point of the story about the host leaving a stuffed weasel in a guest room? — "if you really wanted to be a writer, you didn't send away the weasel."

9. Talk about the significance of the book's title? Consider that the word originally (in Greek) referred to the self, to someone who is private and keeps to herself. But it might also refer to its more common usage: a lack of intelligence or stupidity. How do you see its use as the title?

10. Selin wants to learn from books how to live life, to use novels like self-help books. Is she mistakenly naive? Can one do that? If we don't learn about diverse ways of living from literature, why do we read — purely for entertainment and escape?

11. Did you find this book "mordantly funny," even hilarious as many critics did? Smart and intellectually bracing? Too smart and intellectual? Lacking emotional urgency? Long winded? In other words, how did you experience The Idiot?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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