Reading like an aspiring novelist vs. reading like a writer

I kind of hate telling people that I'm working on a novel. I imagine that as they're nodding, they're also rolling their eyes inwardly and thinking, Isn't everyone? 

But there it is. I'm working on a novel.

And it's changed my life in a number of ways. For one thing, it's changed the way I read novels.

Reading like an aspiring novelist is different from reading like a writer, which I have always done. To me, reading like a writer means that I'm constantly observing the way sentences are crafted and then swooning when I run across lyrical, clever or perfectly clean prose.

That said, I have not always read like a novelist. The difference I think, is that I now pay attention to the way scenes are structured, how and when things are revealed and how the author convinces us to empathize with a character. And when it works really well, I try to pinpoint exactly how the author does it.

I did this recently with Elif Batumen's The Idiot, one of my favorite reads of the year.

The Idiot is the story of Selin, a second-generation Turkish-American who has just arrived at Harvard. Batumen takes us through her freshman year and the summer afterward.

I will admit that it was a bit of a rough start. Even 30 pages in, I wasn't sure about this book. I found myself constantly questioning the pacing.

Why am I reading every conversation she has with every professor of every class she is thinking of taking? Why am I getting a two-page play-by-play of what happens when she buys a poster for her dorm room? Can we just move this story along?

On top of that, I wasn't sure what to make of this girl, Selin. Is she being funny or is she just really strange?

But then not even halfway into the book, something changed. I felt like I already knew Selin so much more intimately than I ever get to know most characters. In fact, she didn't feel like a character at all. She felt like a friend or classmate, or even better, a dorm mate—and I really wanted to know what was going to happen to her next.

How did Elif Batumen do this, in my opinion? Interestingly enough, it was those same seemingly mundane activities I'd questioned when I'd started the book. Turns out they were affecting me more than I realized. Those moments are exactly the kinds of experiences my friends and I shared in college while getting to know each other. You can learn a lot about a person simply by brushing your teeth together in pajamas.

It's also what ultimately helped me figure out her humor. She has a quirky kind of wit that doesn't immediately hit you over the head, but the more you spend time with her, the clearer it becomes and the better it gets. In fact, my husband commented at how often I burst into giggles while reading this book. 

I still giggle when I think back to this passage on page 165:

Helen, the fiction editor, was petite and cute, with a down-to-earth manner. I could see she wanted me to like her, and I did like her. Without knowing how to demonstrate it through any speech act, I towered over her mutely, trying to project goodwill.

I can almost picture myself walking across campus, laughing while Selin tells me that story. In fact, that's how I felt for much of the book. 

So hats off to Elif Batumen. Somehow, she (and Selin) lured me in just as I was contemplating a DNF. 

So much so that now, months after I finished the book, little things that remind me of my time with Selin—looking at a poster, hearing a Russian accent, sitting at an airport gate—will make me stop and wonder how my good friend, Selin, is doing these days.