Rarely does a book that seems to promise so little deliver so much. Even the subtitle, Occasional Essays, of Zadie Smith’s nonfiction collection Changing My Mind, carries a whiff of modest ambitions. This isn’t, it seems to say, nearly as substantial as Smith’s novels.
Yet rather than the usual clean-out-the-closets collection—the miscellany of articles that fills the publication gap between big books—this volume, which includes previously published material, offers the sort of insight that will not only enlighten fans but should provide plenty of illumination for anyone who appreciates fiction and words and the interplay between writer and reader as much as Smith plainly does.
The best of these essays are as concerned with the essence of reading well as writing well. And they are written so incisively, and with so much empathy and warm-hearted humor, that they show how reading has made Smith the writer that she is. Rather than a critic advancing an argument or an academic analyzing in code, she’s a writer who understands the reader’s perspective, a reader who understands the writer’s.
When she praises the “broad sympathetic sensibility” of E.M. Forster (who provided the template for her novel On Beauty), she could well be describing her own. Much of her writing on literature doesn’t directly critique other writers, but critiques the critiques, as Smith sees Middlemarch through Henry James’s eyes while inviting the reader to read (or re-read) George Eliot’s classic through Smith’s.
Whether she’s describing how she initially resisted the seminal influence of Zora Neale Hurston, perhaps the first of the great authors about whom Smith has changed her mind, or celebrating the late David Foster Wallace (“he was my favorite living writer”) through a close reading of his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Smith shows a universalist’s, omnivorous appetite for literature.
The book’s title implies more than arriving at a different verdict. As the author matures, becomes more educated and experienced, she reads with a mind that is different than it was. As reading fiction leads to writing it, she develops a more profound understanding of those different, symbiotic roles. “Reading has always been my passion, my pleasure, and I am constitutionally drawn to any thesis that gives power to readers…,” she writes. “But when I became a writer, writing became my discipline, my practice, and I felt the need to believe in it as an intentional, directional act, an expression of individual consciousness.”
These essays aren’t all about literature. The most moving one is pure memoir, linking the death of her father and her family’s appreciation for comedy. (The weakest are the film reviews, some little more than capsules.) But even when delving into politics, Smith brings a novelist’s attention to language, style and tone. <\b>If she’d never written a novel, this collection alone would make me eager to read more of her work.