Insights from a gifted writer
A good essay collection reveals something new about its subjects, while a great collection also reveals something about its author. Zadie Smith’s excellent Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays falls into the latter category. In a collection divided into four sections—Reading, Being, Seeing and Feeling—Smith brings deep knowledge and stunning wit to these nomadic pieces and in the process, brings the curtain up on herself.
A question running throughout the book is how someone, at age 34, gets to be so smart about so much. Smith writes a wonderful homage to Katharine Hepburn and in doing so, imparts an appreciation of the past two generations of filmmaking that film critics will envy. In the section on “Being,” she begins with a version of a lecture she gave to students of Columbia University’s Writing Program. It should be required reading for all writers, students or otherwise. Her approach to, and understanding of, the written word begins to explain how she burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with the novel White Teeth. And her essays on her personal life, especially the tender handling of her father’s memory in “Smith Family Christmas,” “Accidental Hero” and “Dead Man Laughing,” are glimpses into her own complex family, displaying unflinching insight without sacrificing a loving appreciation.
Smith also displays a keen mind for literary analysis in her final essay, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.” Here she bravely disseminates Wallace’s work, not in simplistic terms, but in language that renders the demanding author’s body of work in manageable bites.
With Changing My Mind, Smith has given the art of the essay its most entertaining and educational revival in years. It’s the kind of collection a reader will keep within reach for a long while, simply based on Smith’s virtuosic performance.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.