The first column I ever wrote for The Herald was titled “I did not like the first-year reading.”
Perhaps you remember that book ― “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman. The pink paperback Brown mailed us the summer before our first year, with the picture of a gray rock on the cover. Our first homework assignment. Perhaps you liked it. Perhaps, like me, you didn’t.
I still remember the day when that column got published. My new friends and I squished together on the suspiciously stained couches of the Emery-Woolley lounge while we cracked open our copies of the newspaper.
“That book was so boring.”
“Yeah, it was stupid.”
Nevermind that the book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The verdict was in: “The Idiot” sucked. Then we returned to our usual hijinks; I don’t remember exactly. Maybe a game of Bananagrams or never have I ever, our hands gripping Solo cups of the “wine” that one of us had brewed using grape juice and yeast in his dorm room.
Now, three and a half years later, I have some regrets about that column.
Mostly, I wish I had been kinder toward the work. Rereading my column puts me back in the skin of my first-year self, and I remember how obnoxious I was.
I was fresh out of high school, where most stories had clear arcs and clear endings, whether a violent death (“Et tu, Brute?”) or a marriage to Mr. Darcy. To read a book that placed, at the center of its narrative, a warning about the incoherence of narrative — a book that ended with the line “I hadn’t learned anything at all” — was terrifying, confusing, disorienting.
But I hid those mixed feelings in my column, wrangling them into an easy thesis of dislike. I suspect I did this in order to deny “The Idiot” the power of its prophecy. If I convinced myself, as I did in my column, that I was “unlike the narrator” of “The Idiot,” I would not become her.
Selin, the protagonist of “The Idiot,” goes to Harvard after all (I did not get into Harvard). She chases a man (with more red flags than a Danish soccer match) across the Atlantic in the name of unrequited love (I would never). She obsesses over the meaning and meaninglessness of psycholinguistics and atomic particles and rocks (how pretentious).
I denied any potential parallels between myself and the narrator: How I was also attending a stuffy, old-money Ivy League school and felt unsure of what it meant to belong at such a place. How after downloading Tinder for the first time, I, too, would encounter red flags galore, along with the dizzying senselessness of first attraction. How I, too, was a pretentious, insufferable fool, and would grapple with my own questions of meaning and meaninglessness, not in psycholinguistics class but in CSCI 0190: “Accelerated Introduction to Computer Science.”
I revisited “The Idiot” while working on this column, and it astonishes me how resonant certain passages feel to my time here at Brown. Here’s just a few:
“It was hard to decide on a literature course. Everything the professors said seemed to be somehow beside the point.” Shopping period, fall 2019.
“It seems to me that your sense of other people’s awfulness might be compensating for your own sense of inferiority and fear of rejection.” Subtweeting myself.
“The croissant was crisp and soft and flaky at the same time. Just biting it made you feel cared for.” For me, it was a Blue Room muffin.
“In a corner, a girl was staring at a stack of flash cards with incredible ferocity, as if she were going to eat them.” Pre-med studying for organic chemistry, Sciences Library basement.
And of course, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.” Maybe the Open Curriculum was not as transformative as they say.
There were also passages that captured, with razor-sharp precision, the experience of writing this column. Like this one: “Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the point of writing wasn't just to record something past but also to prolong the present, like in ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ to stretch out the time until the next thing happened.”
Or this one: “It can be really exasperating to look back at your past. What’s the matter with you? I want to ask her, my younger self, shaking her shoulder. If I did that, she would probably cry. Maybe I would cry, too.”
Though in the interest of not making my past (or present) self cry, I want to offer him some compassion too. Like most other tragic characters, my younger self was probably doomed to deny his fate. My younger self, who did not hear the message so obvious it was written in the title of the book, or at least, did not want to believe it: We were all idiots.
When a response to my first column appeared in the paper the week after, written by two student members of the first-year reading committee who noted respectfully that I had missed the point of the book entirely, I dismissed the writers as bitter. In the end, of course, they were right.
Batuman published a sequel to “The Idiot” last year. It’s titled “Either/Or,” and it follows Selin’s sophomore year. I have not read it yet, though I plan to. As a wrinkly old senior and soon-to-be graduate, however, I will never be able to read it as I once read “The Idiot,” as a prophecy to ignore.
I tell myself I know better now, that if Batuman had already written a sequel to the sequel of the sequel of the sequel, a book about Selin’s life post-college, I would read it and see myself in her story. Heed the warnings. Find solace in her company. See in its incoherent narrative a guide to the incoherence of life itself.
But if there is one thing “The Idiot” taught me it is this: I know better than to think I know better. I have been an idiot all along.