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The Vox Book Club spent September reading The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s witty and touching campus novel about trying to become a writer at Harvard in 1995. And to culminate our month of discussion, Batuman herself paid a virtual visit to the club for a live chat with us on Zoom. In a beautifully wide-ranging conversation, she filled us in on what the sequel to The Idiot that she’s working on right now looks like, why the novel is a politically radical form, and why you should never be embarrassed about anything. The Idiot was our back-to-school book, and I think it is safe to say that we all learned a great deal from Professor Batuman’s session.
Check out the video above to watch our full conversation. I’ve also collected a few highlights, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.
Once you finish up here, I highly recommend starting Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, if you haven’t already. It’s our October book club pick and the perfect story to get you in the Halloween spirit. We’ll start our discussion of Mexican Gothic on October 16; sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything in the meantime.
What volume two of The Idiot will look like
You’ve said The Idiot was the prequel to the book you originally planned to write. Are you still working on that one?
The book that I’m writing now is called Either/Or. It’s kind of a comically literal sequel to The Idiot in that it starts in [Selin’s] sophomore year of college. When I told my friends, they were like, “Oh, my god, is it going to be a tetralogy?” People will be like, “Oh, in volume four will you find out if she got enough credits to graduate?”
Over the course of the book, Selin is studying a lot of different languages, philosophies of language, and linguistics. And at the end, she concludes that they didn’t really teach her the things she actually wanted to know about languages. So what do you think is the thing that she wanted to know?
I wrote about this a little more in my other book, The Possessed, which is a nonfiction one, and it also talks about college a little bit. I was in college in the ’90s, and now we’re in such a different historical period from then. Also now I’m in my 40s, which I think is the time when a person really gets to see what the ideology that they grew up with as a young person was. Because when you’re a young person, you’re like, this is just reality. And then you get a little bit older, and you see that all of these things are different, and you’re like, oh, that was history. Now I’m becoming aware of how much the Cold War shaped my experience of high school and college, and specifically my ideas about what it was to be a writer.
I knew that I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that I wanted to write novels. But one idea that I had, which was this kind of perverted version of German romanticism that I think trickled down to America and to creative writing programs via the Cold War, was that you shouldn’t read too many books. That you would slavishly imitate them. I thought that I wanted to learn some kind of pure form that I could just pour my own content into later, and it would be somehow true to me and to who I was as an individual, because I really believed in individualism. And also, I had been so frustrated with high school and with high school English class, and I was just ready for the next thing.
So in real life, when I got to college, I did try to major in linguistics, and I did do philosophy of language and studied psychology of language and neurolinguistics and all this stuff because I thought that that was somehow going to give me the correct structure to become a novelist. And then I found out very quickly that that was incorrect and that actually what I needed to do was to read more novels to understand and to enter into this discourse.
But that last sentence in the book [“I hadn’t learned anything at all.”] is also just more generally conveying a sense that I think most people have, which is that the things that you learn are not necessarily from the place where they’re the most vividly flagged, like, “This is where the big information is going to be.” It often does not work out that way.
On choosing between an aesthetic and an ethical life
So the reason that volume two is called Either/Or is that Selin reads this book by Kierkegaard called Either/Or, which is about whether to live an aesthetic life or an ethical life. And she realizes that this is the core of her friendship with Svetlana, and everything that she did with Ivan can sort of make sense if she puts it in terms of the aesthetic life. She doubles down on it. And Svetlana doubles down in the opposite direction and on the sort of ethical life and on self-care. And they just both go these different ways. Svetlana wants to be in a stable relationship with someone who’s caring and nurturing, and Selin is just like, “You’re an alien. I don’t understand you. I just want to eat cashews every day for two months.”
I think one of the things that’s so interesting about Selin’s idea of the aesthetic life is that it is also so wrapped up in her idea of what you need to experience to become a writer. I love that passage where she’s talking about a girl in her dorm who also wants to be a writer and she’s going to intern at New York Magazine over the summer, and Selin’s solution is to go to Hungary for the summer. What do you think is attractive to her about staying away from the traditional classic resume-building skills that Harvard is usually known for creating and emphasizing?
Well, I really did read Either/Or in my sophomore year of college, and I went completely bonkers. Part of why I wanted to write this book was just to unpack how crazy I went. And the part about the aesthetic life, it’s all about marriage. It’s about how you have to have a marriage, and you have to have a family. It’s kind of odd when you think about it. And in Part Two, in Either/Or, that’s the path that Svetlana is on.
I’m realizing more and more the extent to which Selin’s mistrust of the conventional career path and the conventional hoops that you jump through are really tied up with an aversion toward conventional family life. And so there’s a part in Either/Or where she talks about learning what that aesthetic life is.
And she’s like, this was really exciting to me, because it was the first time that I had ever heard this idea that a person’s life could be a work of art. Even though the particular example that I read about was not very inspirational because this guy was just like eating food that had been painted black and gilt and pressing a turtle. Nonetheless, the idea of creating your life as a work of art was incredibly compelling because it was the first time that I had heard of any purpose for your life other than making money in order to pay for your children, and having children and making money.
Nobody ever said that was the point of life, but it always turned out to be. Religious people say that it’s because you have to outnumber the people from other religions. And secularist people say that it’s so that you outnumber the religious people in elections. Or it’s that you have someone to take care of you when you’re older, or so that you experience this boundless love. And then she’s like, “Well, but why can I only experience this love for someone who I gave birth to?” None of it makes sense.
She’s like, I decided that the reason that people do this one thing that everyone does is because they either don’t know that they’re not allowed not to, or there isn’t something else that they want to do more than that, or they just haven’t heard the news. And she wants to go to Harvard because she thinks that there she’ll meet the fortunate resourceful people who have some other idea for what to do, and she’ll learn about it from them. And then she gets there. And there’s this disillusionment that even at Harvard, you’ll be talking to someone who seems like they view the world as a place of the free exchange of ideas and creativity. And you’ll just find out that they’re trying to get everything interesting in their life over with in time to settle down in a good school district. And it just fills her with this horror.
In Volume Two, all of this has been written after I’ve gone through a long course of therapy. So it has a bunch of the things that I realized: that a lot of it is wanting to avoid the mistakes that I felt that my parents made. There’s a part where Selin is talking to Svetlana, and they both have their dissatisfactions with their life in their family of origin. Svetlana has the idea that she can redo everything that her parents did wrong, and she’s going to do it right. And Selin’s idea is like, my parents were doomed. There’s nothing better that they could have done, they were just fucked from the beginning. And I have to just avoid that whole thing to begin with.
There’s some sense that maybe that’s what it is. That all of the aesthetic and the ethical is just about that.
How the novel can re-politicize daily life
Part of what makes this book so immersive is the idea that it’s about the weird little trivialities that make up a life. And I know you’ve written in your criticism before about the idea that the novel should be about the garbage of life, which is a phrase I really love.
Right now is a time where it can be difficult to find meaning in basically doing anything that isn’t concrete political action or literally making a Covid vaccine. So how do you think about the role of the novel, or of art more broadly, in a time like this?
I actually think that a lot of the political problems we’re in now come from a false demarcation. I think the way that we define the word “political” is a little messed up. I think of that tautological feeling that you get from the slogan “the personal is political”: We have drawn a line, a dividing line, and actually that line should not be there, and it’s causing us all kinds of problems.
I’ve been reading a lot more about psychoanalysis and Freud and Marxist criticism. And I think that we really underestimate the extent to which things that happen in the family, family dynamics, determine giant political outcomes. In the past few years, I’ve come to think differently about a lot of things, partly from all of the political stuff that’s been going on. I was one of the apolitical ’90s people who became super woke after all of this awakening stuff. And also just through therapy and realizing.
I went through this disillusionment with the novel where I was like, “Oh, my God, I was de-radicalized by the novel.” I was attracted to novels, and to Russian novels particularly, and the ones that drew me in were the ones that showed particularly clearly the unfairness to women that occurred in patriarchal society. And also the oppression of peasants, because it was all of this Russian literature. And part of what I was drawn to about it was how they show that it’s wrong.
And yet, I realize that these novels aestheticize and legitimize all of these problems. It seems like they’re unavoidable, they’re human, they’re complex, they make a great work of art. I sort of got into that path. And for a while, I was really bummed out about it.
But now I think that actually there is a political job for the novel to do, which is to re-politicize daily life, domestic life, the lives of children. The argument against telling domestic stories about love and children and only reading the newspaper is the most important thing is the affairs of nations where people’s lives are being lost in the hundreds of thousands. It’s not what happened between Mommy and Daddy in the bedroom or the living room. But a book like War and Peace really shows that it’s the family life of the Rostovs, for example, or Pierre Bezukhov, that determines whether they do or don’t join the army, and then that without the people joining the army, there’s no war. That’s the whole point of War and Peace.
I think the novel has a potential to reintegrate those things and the things that we have dismissed as garbage. It’s a form of misogyny and classism to look down at garbage because it’s women and servants who deal with garbage. As if we can isolate those things.
Why you should never be embarrassed about anything
Here’s a question from the audience. Mary says, “I’m a freshman in college, and I read The Idiot. Two weeks before college started, I developed a crush on someone in my class who I had only met over Zoom and sent the book to him. How embarrassed should I be?”
Oh, well, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. Because you should never be embarrassed about anything. This is the thing that I’ve learned: You’ll waste all of your time being embarrassed about stuff that is like, this is okay.
I’ve become kind of an anti-privacy person. Because I think that privacy allows you to think that you have these problems that nobody else has. This is more Cold War stuff, too. They want everyone to think that everyone is completely different in order to depoliticize people. So part of letting go of that is just realizing that everything that you do is completely normal and legit and valid.
That was a great benefit for me for going back and writing a book when I was at an age where everything seems super embarrassing, and then editing it in my late 30s, where just none of it seemed that important anymore. I could just see, like, that person I was shouldn’t have been so embarrassed.
Anyway, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. I’m super flattered and happy that you read the book and it said something to you at this moment. And I’m wishing you all the best luck with the guy, and with a much more important thing, which is your self-development and your studies and your self-realization.
For more with Elif Batuman, including the fight between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and how The Idiot is like Twilight, watch our full conversation in the video above.
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.
In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.
Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.
It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.
Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.
Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.
Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.
The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”
At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.
On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.
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The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.
From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.
“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.
The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.
Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.
Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.
Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
Calls for urgent reduction of violence
Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.
Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.
There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.
1/4 I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.
But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.
Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube
Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.
The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.
By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.
“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”
Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.
The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.
“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”
Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.
Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.
“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”
Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.
Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.
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