An accidental collection of essays, in which Zadie Smith riffs about whatever she wants and we read it
The first season of The Wire was some of the best TV I’d ever seen but it took me years just to get to season three….I found it almost impossible to get into the slow marine storyline of the second season. Even though I knew the rest of the series would be great (mostly because everybody said it was amazing), I just stopped watching for a while. When I did start watching it again, it was great. The exact same thing happened with this book. The first time I tried to read it was about two years ago. I loved the first piece on Smith’s experience in reckoning with Their Eyes Were Watching God, then couldn’t get into the second essay so I put it down for a while. Even though I knew the rest of the book was probably great (mostly because everyone says Smith is amazing). Very glad I picked it up again
Yes, I went through The Wire just to tell you that you will need some patience to get through parts of this book…but you’ll be rewarded for it.
Changing My Mind, by Zadie’s own admission, was written unintentionally while she was supposed to be writing a novel (can you imagine procrastinating this productively??). A collection of occasional essays, some written for papers- The Guardian, The New York Review Of Books, The Sunday Telegraph. Some are book and film reviews. Some are memoirs. The sheer variety of subjects alone would make it worth a read.
Full disclosure: I loved this book- It’s funny, witty and opinionated throughout.
It was almost like having a brilliant lit friend explain what made her the writer she is and in some places- even what made her the person she is. I started making notes on which essays were my favourite and slowly found myself adding about half the book to the list. That Crafty Feeling is a lecture on her own writing process where she reflects on her need to write a novel chronologically and her embarrassment at reading past work. In Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean, Smith discusses wanting to like Hurston because she ‘represented good writing’ rather than because she represented her. This struck a chord because she talks about the flaw in trying to read and write neutrally-something I have tried to do in the past.
Speaking in tongues was very perceptive and perhaps the strongest piece.
Smith confidently discusses the impact being upwardly mobile has had on her own accent and parallels this with similar duality in Obama’s speech. Perhaps at the book’s most personal, Feeling includes pieces about writing her father’s memoirs and her pride as her brother (Doc Brown) matures as a comedian. Liberia reads like an account of gaping holes in NGO ambitions and made me wonder if she used the experience to inform one of the main characters in Swing Time. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested to know what you think.
Most of ‘Seeing’ and ‘Remembering’ assume you’re as well read as Zadie is (one day)
Some of the essays in this book feel like Smith is writing for the sake of writing.
Like she is writing for herself, an examination of personal thought with no motive or deliberate direction and in that sense, Changing My Mind is pretty self-indulgent. Feeling, for example, has content worthy of journal entries but without the events that sell a diary- no major secrets or scandal. It makes you wonder if anyone other than Smith could have pulled off getting this published as a collection.
In places, Changing My Mind assumes a lot- most of Seeing and Remembering assume you’re as well read as Zadie is (one day) and that you have as much interest/ appreciation for David Foster Wallace as she does (she is clearly a massive DFW stan). I’m not and I don’t so I admit that parts of this book were an exercise in flick through. I didn’t know what she was talking about.
I enjoyed this more than this much more than Swing Time
Although I bought them both in the same month. I’m not sure why, it may be that I was so busy in life at the time that I didn’t get into it properly. It could be because I always enjoy reading Smith’s articles, essays and interviews and was a fan based on just those. Probably makes Feel Free an obvious next choice I haven’t read White Teeth or NW; I have a tendency to ignore well-hyped books (may be a flaw, I am getting over this!). Reading Changing my Mind has made me want to pick up NW and give Smith’s novels another go.
I started reading James Baldwin’s Dark Days around the same time and the casual, conversational tone in both sound very ‘everyman’ while being all at once genuinely insightful and thought-provoking to read. The effort that could have been put into language was instead reserved for putting together ideas and feelings. As an aspiring writer, it’s encouraging because it makes you feel it’s not always about pizzazz. You don’t always need the sparks. Sometimes just the truth works.
Small footnote – Still haven’t finished The Wire.
Stack Suggestions– Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, Feel Free by Zadie Smith, NW by Zadie Smith