Book Of Essays Zadie Smith

A sparkling collection of Zadie Smith's nonfiction over the past decade.

Zadie Smith brings to her essays all of the curiosity, intellectual rigor, and sharp humor that have attracted so many readers to her fiction, and the result is a collection that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Split into four sections—"Reading," "Being," "Seeing," and "Feeling"—Changing My Mind inA sparkling collection of Zadie Smith's nonfiction over the past decade.

Zadie Smith brings to her essays all of the curiosity, intellectual rigor, and sharp humor that have attracted so many readers to her fiction, and the result is a collection that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Split into four sections—"Reading," "Being," "Seeing," and "Feeling"—Changing My Mind invites readers to witness the world from Zadie Smith's unique vantage. Smith casts her acute eye over material both personal and cultural, with wonderfully engaging essays-some published here for the first time-on diverse topics including literature, movies, going to the Oscars, British comedy, family, feminism, Obama, Katharine Hepburn, and Anna Magnani.

In her investigations Smith also reveals much of herself. Her literary criticism shares the wealth of her experiences as a reader and exposes the tremendous influence diverse writers—E. M. Forster, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, and others—have had on her writing life and her self-understanding. Smith also speaks directly to writers as a craftsman, offering precious practical lessons on process. Here and throughout, readers will learn of the wide-ranging experiences—in novels, travel, philosophy, politics, and beyond—that have nourished Smith's rich life of the mind. Her probing analysis offers tremendous food for thought, encouraging readers to attend to the slippery questions of identity, art, love, and vocation that so often go neglected.

Changing My Mind announces Zadie Smith as one of our most important contemporary essayists, a writer with the rare ability to turn the world on its side with both fact and fiction. Changing My Mind is a gift to readers, writers, and all who want to look at life more expansively....more

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published November 12th 2009 by The Penguin Press HC

By Zadie Smith
452 pp. Penguin Press. $28.

As a teenager, Zadie Smith discovered Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” and felt her world crack open. Kureishi, who is British-Pakistani, made his narrator and protagonist, Karim, mixed race as well. Smith, the child of a black Jamaica-born mother and a white British father, wasn’t used to seeing biracial characters in fiction. “Practically the only star I had to steer by was that old, worn-out, paper-thin character the ‘tragic mulatto,’” she writes in her latest collection of essays, “Feel Free,”whom I found in bad novels and worse movies.” But Karim wasn’t tragic, nor was he an idealized, anodyne role model. He was, in Smith’s words, “pushy, wild, charismatic, street-smart, impudent, often hilarious.”

Kureishi isn’t interested in pieties, and neither, refreshingly, is Smith, as anyone who has read her essays in Harper’s, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books knows. Smith argues that it is Kureishi’s willingness to be impious, perverse and rude that gives the novel its singular power: “All the great energy of ‘Buddha’ comes from watching the liberty of creative freedom being taken, over and over again — as if it were a right.” Which, of course, it is. But that’s not always obvious to young artists, particularly those who don’t see themselves represented in the status quo. Reading the novel, Smith “felt something impossible loosen within me,” she writes in “The I Who Is Not Me,” the inaugural Philip Roth Lecture, which she delivered at the Newark Public Library in 2016. “It was a gift of freedom.”

A few years after this formative moment, in 2000, she published “White Teeth,” her celebrated debut novel. Smith has written four novels since then, and in the past decade, she has also produced a significant body of smart, incisive nonfiction, much of it occasioned by encounters with books and film and visual art, from Kureishi’s novel to Balthasar Denner’s 18th-century painting “Alte Frau” to Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out.” Although her essays range over many topics — Brexit, Facebook, climate change, cultural appropriation, pleasure versus joy — she is interested in the making and meaning of cultural artifacts, and in the exchange of feeling that takes place between art and its audience, between text and reader: what she calls “the essential, living communication between art work and viewer.”

As the title of her new collection suggests, here Smith explores variations on a theme: freedom of language and thought; freedom from received narratives that tend to be foolishly consistent, if not downright constricting; freedom from the “impossible identities” society so facilely places on people, or from those we too readily adopt ourselves. Most of all, though, she’s concerned with artistic and aesthetic freedom, with the boldness and daring that compel an artist to create even when conditions seem hostile. In 1969, she notes, it was a radical act for a Jewish author to write a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, masturbating character like Alexander Portnoy. But in “taking this freedom for himself,” Smith writes, Roth, “intentionally or not, passed that freedom down” to readers and writers like Smith, who came after him.

Freedom is a conceit well suited to a collection of essays. Aldous Huxley called the essay “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” — and this is Smith’s approach. She writes about her lower-middle-class upbringing by way of the second bathroom in her childhood home: “The spare room, the extra toilet — these represented, for my parents, a very British form of achievement.” She mourns her father while celebrating the exhilarating democracy of Italian public parks, and she explores Justin Bieber as love-object through the philosophy of Martin Buber. The essay form’s freewheeling nature arguably accounts for its current popularity. Readers, hip to the conventions of storytelling — we fill our commutes with podcasts and fetishize long-form narratives — are drawn to the essay, which lends itself to the unexpected and original. Behind the best contemporary essays you can sense the writer’s beating heart.

Smith’s style is casual, discursive, but not collagelike in the current fashion, intimate without being overly personal. Taking her children to “The Polar Express 4-D Experience” on the same day she sees Charlie Kaufman’s puppet film, “Anomalisa” — while carrying a pocket book of Schopenhauer around — yields “Windows on the Will: ‘Anomalisa,’” an essay that examines Kaufman’s film through its Schopenhauerian fixation on human suffering (the easier to dramatize with puppets): “the inevitability of it, and the possibility of momentary, illusory relief from it.” Similarly, in “Man Versus Corpse,” the discovery of a “forlorn little hardbacked book” about Italian masterpieces on a table in her lobby leads to a close reading of Luca Signorelli’s painting “Nude Man From the Back Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders,” which in turn opens up into a rambling discussion of existence, inequality (“the unequal distribution of corpses”), Rothko, Warhol (“an enthusiastic proponent of corpse art”), iPhones and her own inability to imagine herself as a corpse, before ending at a dinner party with talk of Knausgaard and his multivolume “cathedral of boredom.”

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