(originally published/reviewed for HipsterBookClub.com in June 2010)
CHANGING MY MIND: OCCASIONAL ESSAYS
By ZADIE SMITH
320 pages; Hardcover
GENRE(S): Nonfiction, Essays
Reviewed by Samantha Storey
In the foreword of her book, Zadie Smith admits that Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was “written without my knowledge,” that the essays included within “were written for particular occasions, particular editors” and “I didn’t realize I’d written it until someone pointed it out to me.” So if the essays inside seem particularly scattered, it’s best to roll with it. Though the content is spread across the board (literary criticism, lectures, reviews on books, life, movie stars), Smith’s singular voice is resounding, reflecting the deeply personal, perceptive and emotional acuity found in her previous works.
Separating the book into five sections—“Reading,” “Being,” “Seeing,” “Feeling,” and “Remembering”—Smith does her best to categorize the inclusions. The first section comprises mostly literary criticism and might be, for casual readers, the most difficult to get through. In the first essay, a reflection on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Smith describes her reluctance to begin reading, believing at 14 that she “ ranged widely in [her] reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons” struggling both with her mother’s insistence that she read it as well as Hurston’s colloquial dialogue. After one page and she writes, “when I’m reading this book, I believe it with my whole soul.” In the essays that follow, Smith tends toward the highbrow: Criticism on E.M. Forster, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, and Roland Barthes retain her voice and unparalleled passion for literature, but run dry and long for those not as versed in literary theory.
“That Crafty Feeling,” the first essay in the “Being” section, is based on a lecture Smith gave at Columbia University in which she was asked “to speak about some aspect of your craft.” For writers and fans of Smith, this piece is part guidebook, part inspiration. She writes:
I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty [David] Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.
The last section, “Remembering,” consists of only one piece: a lengthy appreciation of the late David Foster Wallace. Smith spends almost 40 pages both esteeming her favorite author and examining his methods:
Wallace chose the path of most resistance. He turned from a career in math and philosophy to pursue a vocation in what he called “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,”. . . He battled to share his gifts rather than simply display them, seeming to seek the solution in a principle of self-mortification.
In the Wallace essay, as with the others in the book, Smith seems to be considering the argument of reader versus writer: Which is more important, and do we, as readers, need to work to authenticate or give meaning to an author’s work? In a footnote, Smith lets Wyatt Mason (“Wallace’s most attentive mainstream critic”) argue the invariable hardness of Wallace’s work and summarily dismiss readers who “find even Wallace’s habit of abbreviating the phrase with regard to (w/r/t) an unreasonable demand, no counterargument will suffice.” It seems as the if the argument could extend infinitely, and invariably does throughout the essay collection with the only solution seeming to be in the deconstruction of pieces for the true pleasure of experiencing them. Smith’s last word leaves the argument hanging– “In the end, all that can be said is that the difficult gift [Wallace’s] is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it,” a slightly disappointing end to question worth more prodding.
It should go without saying that Changing My Mind isn’t necessarily for the occasional reader. “To appreciate Wallace,” Smith writes, “you need to really read him—and then you need to reread him,” and though they exist on different planes, the same suggestion can be made in reference to this book. While at times readers may feel like outsiders—way out of the realm of Forster or Nabokov or Barthes—and struggling with the academic nature of Smith’s analyses, it’s fair to say that this feeling is temporary. Having read Middlemarch might authenticate Smith’s commentary on characters like Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, but not knowing them doesn’t take away and while Smith’s academic tendencies aren’t fleeting, they’re also not so overwhelming that readers can’t grasp her criticisms. “When it comes to rereading,” Smith quotes Nabokov, “One should notice and fondle details,” of which, in Smith’s case, the details are abundant.