Elif Batuman has a story in last week’s New Yorker, “Constructed Worlds,” that appeals to me greatly. It’s an evocation of what it’s like to find yourself immersed in the college experience that is often laugh-out-loud funny (I did in fact laugh out loud, and even kept reading bits to my wife even though she had already read the story); furthermore, as you will see from the excerpts below, it might have been written expressly for me:
I got a free dictionary. The dictionary didn’t include “ratatouille” or “Tasmanian devil.” […]
“Hey—no one gave me a dictionary!”
“It doesn’t have ‘Tasmanian devil,’ ” I said.
She took the dictionary from my hands, riffling the pages. “It has plenty of words.”
I told her she could have it.
. . .
I went to Linguistics 101, to see what linguistics was about. It was about how language was a biological faculty, hardwired into the brain—infinite, regenerative, never the same twice. The highest law was “the intuition of a native speaker,” a law you couldn’t find in any grammar book or program into any computer. Maybe that was what I wanted to learn. Whenever my mother and I were talking about a book and I thought of something that she hadn’t thought of, she would look at me and say admiringly, “You really speak English.”
The linguistics professor, a gentle phonetician, specialized in Turkic tribal dialects. Sometimes he would give examples from Turkish to show how different morphology could be in non-Indo-European languages, and then he would smile at me and say, “I know we have some Turkish speakers here.” Once, in the hallway before class, he told me about his work on regional consonantal variations of the name for some kind of a fire pit that Turkic people dug somewhere.
I ended up taking a literature class, too, about the city and the novel in nineteenth-century Russia, England, and France. The professor often talked about the inadequacy of published translations, reading us passages from novels in French and Russian to show how bad the translations were. I didn’t understand anything he said in French or Russian, so I preferred the translations.
. . .
You were supposed to take only four classes, but when I found out that they didn’t charge extra for five I signed up for Beginning Russian.
The teacher, Barbara, was a graduate student from East Germany—she specifically said “East Germany.” She said that in Russian her name would be Varvara. We all had to choose Russian names, too. Greg became Grisha, Katie became Katya. There were two foreign students whose names didn’t change—Iván from Hungary and Svetlana from Yugoslavia. Svetlana asked if she could change her name to Zinaida, but Varvara said that Svetlana was already such a good Russian name. My name, on the other hand, though lovely, didn’t end with an –a or a –ya, which would cause complications when we learned cases. Varvara said I could choose any Russian name I wanted. Suddenly I couldn’t think of any. “Maybe I could be Zinaida,” I suggested.
Svetlana turned in her seat and stared into my face. “That is so unfair,” she told me. “You’re a perfect Zinaida.”
It somehow seemed to me that Varvara didn’t want anyone to be called Zinaida, and in the end my name was Sonya.
If every issue included a story with dictionaries and linguistics and literature and translations and Russian, I’d… oh, wait, I already subscribe. I guess I have nothing to bribe them with.