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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

November 21, 2009

Zadie Smith’s passion for writing and film shines through in this sparkling collection of criticism, says an admiring Peter Conrad

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith: ‘Her enthusiasm is almost shocking.’ Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/ Getty Images

For Zadie Smith, criticism is a bodily pleasure, not an abstracted mental operation. Reading, like eating, caters to her ravenous but discriminating appetite: she finds the essence of Kafka in a sliver of words from his diary, carved, she says, as thin as Parma ham and containing the creator’s “marbled mark”. She doesn’t need a snack when watching a film, because her eyes are feeding on the images: Brief Encounter is, for her, a chunk of Wensleydale cheese, inimitably English. The critical arguments in which Smith engages are as vital and as potentially violent as sexual wrestling matches, and in an essay on Katharine Hepburn she recalls that she ejected two lovers from her bed – on separate occasions, I should explain – because they disagreed with her about the relationship between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib.

Smith consumes books and films, by which I mean that she absorbs them, seizing on them with all her acute, avid senses. When she was 14, her mother gave her Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to read. The aim was to raise Zadie’s biracial consciousness, though the result, vividly described in the first essay in this volume, was more intense and more transformative. “I inhaled that book,” Smith recalls (like an oenophile, she reads through her nostrils). It took her three hours to finish the volume and she expressed her critical judgment on it in a fit of grateful, ecstatic tears. When her mother called her to dinner, she took the book to the table, not because she intended to discuss it but because it was in itself a meal, offering her communion with the nutritious blood and body of its author.

This is not the way critics are supposed to comport themselves. Smith’s enthusiasm is almost shocking; she breaks the rules established by the black-gowned, gruel-blooded nerds in universities who murder books by dissecting them, reduce poems and novels to texts which are no more than snarled networks of verbal signals and revenge themselves on the literature they secretly hate by writing badly about it.

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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

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