Scott's Reviews > Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
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Dec 12, 2010

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Read in December, 2010

I gave Zadie Smith's book of essays three stars, instead of four, because it's clear she's still in the process of formation. There are two paths laid out before her, and two personae she adopts in these essays: the Public Intellectual/Star Academic/Writer, and the Reader/Writer.

The two roles are easily discernible as distinct entities in her writing, even as it's clear that they may not be so separate in her own mind. In her first role as Public Intellectual, she has pen, will travel, then write about whatever anyone pays her to write, with the implicit assumption that her opinions on any given topic will be of interest. As she moves into territories of less interest to her, or where she clearly is casting about for something to say under deadline, a mandarin Public Intellectual tone creeps into her writing. Philosophical-literary-academic lecture-hall calisthenics take the place of real engagement, and she strays into pomposity. To her credit, one gets the sense that this mantle does not sit easily on her shoulders, that she sounds false in her own ears, too.

As a Reader/Writer, she shines: the first and last sections of the book, where she writes about personal and literary topics that she truly cares about, where she engages with the writers and topics that made her herself, she is outstanding. Here she takes the same philosophical-literary-academic concerns and makes them real, explains with clarity and passion why the questions that the writers ask, and attempt to answer, are important -- because they are her questions, and through them, her explorations of possible answers. She has the rare gifts of being a gifted reader, a formidably intelligent and articulate critic (who very rarely, if ever, gets caught up in tendrils of lyricism or overwriting), and, most rare of all, of being fundamentally generous. Her essays remind me, at their best, of the golden age of eighteenth-century English essays, clear-spoken, elegant, witty, and profoundly true: at the top of her game, she's a present-day Samuel Johnson, only without the gout, and in a considerably better humor.

Having read many of her essays, in this book and elsewhere, and two of her novels, I think she's a better critic than she is a novelist, and I hope she continues to write more in the critical vein. But I also hope she avoids the temptations of the Public Intellectual, chooses her assignments with care, and devotes her energy to developing the persona of Zadie Smith, committed and generous Reader/Writer.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Fernanda (new)

Fernanda Impresionante, Scott. En serio.

message 2: by Heba (new) - added it

Heba Great review!

loobeensky Aren't people always in process of formation?

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