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Letter: The value of this year’s First Readings

To the Editor:

It’s hard to describe how we felt when we first heard that the First Readings assignment would be The Idiot. Collectively, we have read and re-read the novel at least seven times. One of us is a Slavic Studies concentrator who spent a summer teaching in a Hungarian village; the other has a signed galley of the book with the enjoinder, “Stay in school.” It would be powerful, one of us said to the other, to be in the presence of a whole class of people who’d read the novel, which had once been something of a secret between us. On the other hand, we worried that the designation of “required reading,” dubious for any text, would demean this precious book. Upon reading Johnny Ren’s column, we knew that our worst fears had come true.

Though we were dismayed by Ren’s uncharitable reading of Elif Batuman, we wish not to dwell on its failures. Instead, we will attempt to emulate the generous spirit of The Idiot, which finds unlikely beauty and humor in the texture of adolescence. In fact, Ren’s description of the book – “unfocused and other times strangely lucid ... interspersed with esoteric anecdotes, emails and subplots” – rings resoundingly true to our experience of college. Our time here, too, has been largely “devoid of romance, vindication or really anything revelatory.” We trust that many of our peers will agree with us.

While Selin learns nothing at all from her required linguistics readings, her real education issues from the strange and wondrous language of the world: the Awesome Blossom, the papel iss blonk, the seduced atom, the pink hotel. Thus, it is serendipitously in the spirit of The Idiot when Ren concludes that “its ultimate value, if any, lay beyond its pages instead of within them.”

We welcome him to campus, and wish him well.

Rachel Landau '20, Zach Ngin '22


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