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Wordy Wednesday: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The book The Idiot by Elif Batuman with a violet background

In The Idiot by Elif Batuman, nineteen-year-old Selin attends Harvard for her freshman year of college in the 90s, back when the Internet is brand new. She strikes up an email-relationship with Ivan, an older student in her Russian language class, and then follows him to Hungary for a summer teaching trip.

I loved Selin. While she approaches her life with utmost sincerity, her thoughts surprised me with their perpetual humor. For example:

As he spoke, I felt how I liked following instructions, and it made me ashamed. Following instructions was what had led to the Holocaust (374).

Or this:

The consumption of that baguette seemed to require some kind of ear muscles that I had lost during the two-million-year course of human evolution (189).

Strangely, the dry humor comes through best when reading a hard copy of the book. When I listened to a portion of the book—narrated by the author, no less—I lost the subtle hilarity of Selin.

As Selin settles into her college classes, she attempts to dissect language, to get at the root of how it, and our cognitions, work. The more she examines language, enrolling in classes like psycholinguistics, the worse she conveys her own thoughts and meaning to the people around her.

Abstracted and tongue-tied, Selin—and the reader by extension—feels disoriented, as if her perceptions are missing some crucial element. In this I found Selin wholly relatable: I remember as a college freshman feeling bombarded by how unlike college life was to all my previous experience. Selin reminds me of what it’s like to be nineteen, a newly hatched adult far from the nest, figuring out how to connect with others where no common ground can be assumed and reality must be constructed anew.

Today’s words come from The Idiot. If you’re new to Wordy Wednesday, here’s how it works. I list the word, the sentence in which I found it, its Oxford definition, and a sentence of my own using the word.


“She addressed [him] in a courteous and reserved manner, strikingly different from the baleful aphoristic tone she used with me”

Adjective: threatening harm; menacing.

  • Having a harmful or destructive effect

Though clean-shaven and well-dressed, he walked toward me with a baleful grin, and I scurried to the other side of the street.


“He tapped the bilious face of a man who was holding a martini glass in one hand and playing the piano with the other.”


  1. Affected by or associated with nausea or vomiting

  2. (of a color) lurid or sickly

  3. Spiteful; bad-tempered

As the couple walked through and grimaced at the bilious green wall color, I groaned, “you can always paint over it!”

Have you read The Idiot? What did you think of it? Share in the comments!

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