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Feel Free: Essays

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From Zadie Smith, one of the most beloved authors of her generation, a new collection of essays Since she burst spectacularly into view with her debut novel almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith has established herself not just as one of the world's preeminent fiction writers, but also a brilliant and singular essayist. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on a range of subjects, and each piece of hers is a literary event in its own right. Arranged into five sections--In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free--this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize. What is The Social Network--and Facebook itself--really about? "It's a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore." Why do we love libraries? "Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay." What will we tell our granddaughters about our collective failure to address global warming? "So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we'd just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes--and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat." Gathering in one place for the first time previously unpublished work, as well as already classic essays, such as, "Joy," and, "Find Your Beach," Feel Free offers a survey of important recent events in culture and politics, as well as Smith's own life. Equally at home in the world of good books and bad politics, Brooklyn-born rappers and the work of Swiss novelists, she is by turns wry, heartfelt, indignant, and incisive--and never any less than perfect company. This is literary journalism at its zenith.

464 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 6, 2018

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About the author

Zadie Smith

101 books13.8k followers
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as two collections of essays, Changing My Mind and Feel Free. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 986 reviews
Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
May 22, 2019
Though I still haven't read any of her fiction, I really feel, on the strength of these essays, that Zadie Smith is My Kind Of People. Her tone and references and outlook on life seem intimately familiar, drawn as they are, like mine, from that optimistic, multicultural jumble that was London in the 90s, when ‘multicultural’ wasn't yet a dirty word and when most things were going steadily, boringly in the right direction. Of course, her experiences of this were a little sharper than mine – she was a biracial girl growing up in the inner city, I was a white boy in the suburbs. But still. When she writes about her childhood, or reflects, thrillingly, on what Brexit means to her, I recognise every word, every thought, every connection.

So much is this the case that something alarmingly like jealousy comes over me when I think about these essays being sent out into the world – they can't understand! – especially when I flip to the back and see that most of them were published for American audiences in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books (I feel a corresponding rush of resentment when she has to pause mid-flow to explain what Ofsted is, or the class implications of living in Willesden). She is particularly good – better than anyone else I've read – at capturing something I've been struggling to express myself recently: the giddy disillusionment of realising that your own understanding of the world, which you believed to represent some kind of human universal, comes instead (and of course it does!) from specific sociocultural roots which are just as likely to be cut out as they are to be nurtured.

Even where I went to school, I was the only white guy in my circle and all my closest friends were from Indian or Pakistani families; as a ten-year-old, I couldn't really tell the difference between these two and I'm not sure my parents could either. Back then, of course, they were all lumped together as ‘Asians’, whereas later, quite suddenly – after the autumn of 2001 – the Pakistanis found themselves abruptly rebranded as ‘Muslims’. Funny, that. September 11 is nowhere mentioned by Zadie Smith in this book, or even indirectly referred to, but it's the main invisible watershed separating that world from the world of today – the start of a fifteen-year spiral from the 2001 attacks to the 2016 elections, into a world where interviewers now ask Zadie Smith if she will renounce the joy of her early writings, and admit – confess, confess! – that ‘multiculturalism has failed’.

I am reminded that to have grown up in a homogeneous culture in a corner of rural England, say, or France, or Poland, during the seventies, eighties or nineties, is to think of oneself as having been simply alive in the world, untroubled by history, whereas to have been raised in London during the same period, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.

Bullseye. Those of you who have read Feel Free might think I'm spending a long time on this background, given that she only addresses it directly in a couple of the essays here. But I see that context behind every sentence in the book, whether she's talking about philosophy, walking round an art gallery, or listening to Jay-Z. What I recognise in her writing is the same thing I recognise in a lot of our generation of so-called ‘X-ennials’: the sense of trying to hold on to a certain remembered lightness – a certain positivity, for want of a better word – which seemed to dissolve under the Manichaean polemics of a digital age.

What's remarkable is how often she succeeds: though it's probably not obvious from this review, she's a very witty and generous writer – encouraging, even – admirably even-handed and non-judgmental. And the connections she makes are sometimes so familiar to me that they give me a rush of pleasure even when I don't agree with her conclusions (for instance, she is a great admirer of the Peter Stamm novel Seven Years, which I thought was irredeemably dreadful), just because the reference points she reaches for are the same ones that I have available to me. These chains of references can be wonderful: at one point she starts talking about going to a rave in Smithfield in 1999, then leaps forward to The Streets' 2002 song ‘Weak Become Heroes’ (a song that makes me ache with nostalgia, despite the fact that I was never a big clubber and not particularly attached to that scene) – and then from there to the character Super Hans in long-running sitcom Peep Show, all in two paragraphs. ‘Do more!’ I want to shout.

Yes, there are areas where you can quibble with her assessments, or even with her tone. I found it difficult to care. At a deep level, I feel like Zadie Smith is speaking my language, and I'm happy someone's doing that as eloquently and passionately as she is.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
December 1, 2018
“Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious uncertain elements: language, the world, the self.”

I love this quote and I’d gladly write my own essay with that as the starting point because it’s so completely true. I really can see this idea in Zadie Smith’s fiction.

And Smith has many other brilliant ideas across this excellent collection of essays; she is a remarkable woman with a very remarkable mind. She expresses herself so clearly and so simply; yet, with a great deal of intelligence and depth. She is certainly one of the most important, if not one of the greatest, novelists of the 21st century.

In here she discusses all manner of topics ranging from contemporary British politics to libraries and climate change. And, naturally, I found her defence of libraries the most well-written and thoughtful aspect of the book. She discusses the importance of reading in the modern world and lays her arguments down in a careful and systematic way. It’s not impassioned, but full of logic and facts and it really works as a persuasive device. And libraries are so, so, important. As spaces they preserve culture and facts and art and logic and life. We need more libraries. And we need more defenders of libraries.

"Just saying the same thing over and over again. Defend our libraries. We like libraries. Can we keep our libraries? We need to talk about libraries. Pleading, like children. Is that really where we are?"


Smith discusses books and some of the writers that have helped shape her own craft. And that’s kind of important. She’s always seemed unique and very talented to me, but she is also modest. She understands her roots and she knows who she owes literary debts to. Other than the modernists who clearly influenced her style, Smith mentions The Buddha of Suburbia as being one of the most important texts in her life. I found her arguments that convincing that I went out and bought a copy.

I also found her ideas on social media particularly engaging. The way she describes Facebook as an extension of Zuckerberg’s mind is quite revealing. She characterises the website through ideas of detachment and awkwardness. Is this how we would really treat our friends in actual life on a face-to-face basis? Is it really bringing people closer together or further apart? Smith raises some interesting points here, and although her essay brings some interesting negatives into consideration, she doesn’t really consider the benefits of it. I mean, I know people who have met the spouse on Facebook and long-term friends. It’s still an interesting read though.

So this is a really strong collection. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because some of the essays were on topics that I had no interest in whatsoever, art criticism for one, but I really do recommend it to those that have enjoyed her fiction.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
April 20, 2020
A five-part collection of cultural criticism, personal essays, and political writings, Feel Free showcases Zadie Smith's versatile range as a writer. Smith takes on many topics, from Brexit and the politics of public space to Justin Bieber and the influence of teen idols. The collection's eclecticism is its greatest strength and weakness; there's something in here for everyone, but few will find all the essays of interest, in spite of the fact that they're consistently well crafted and thought provoking.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,724 followers
December 30, 2017
A mixed collection of essays: the best are when Smith is discussing issues of politics (the closure of public libraries, the Brexit vote) where she brings a personal intimacy to national questions.

Less enticing are the 'musing' essays where Smith responds to artworks, books, or plays with ideas such as how different dancers epitomize styles of authorship. These pieces often have an interesting idea at their heart but they feel unstructured, sometimes unfinished, more like entries in a writer's diary than a polished essay. They also feel too long: shortened and sharper would have held my interest more and made the piece more impactful.

So not for me a book to be read cover to cover, but good for something stimulating and thoughtful to dip into while commuting. Thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley.

Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
May 28, 2018
The essays in this book have been published before, mostly in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, but it is quite something to see and read them all together. One has the impression of a very talkative, precocious teenager who notices ceaselessly, has opinions on everything, and is curious what you think but wants to get her view out there first, in case you change her mind. The flexibility of her mind and her fluency is the remarkable thing.

Reviewers and other novelists will find this collection important for how Smith structures her arguments, what she chooses to focus on, what she says about point of view and novelistic structure. When one desires particularly bright conversation but doesn’t have it to hand on an ordinary day, this collection is just the thing to provide food for thought. I listened to the audio, produced by Penguin Audio and read oh-so-brilliantly by Nikki Amuka-Bird. This is a wonderful way to digest Smith’s ideas, the essay form particularly good for a commute.

It took long time to finish the collection, so some of my favorites come from the end simply because I remember them better. But I do remember one near the front called “Dance Lessons for Writers,” which had particularly beautiful descriptions of the dance moves of Michael Jackson and Prince, Baryshnikov & Nureyev. Here’s Baryshnikov on Fred Astaire:
“I was very star-struck, I hardly spoke. But I watched his hands all the time, they were like a lesson in themselves,—so elegant.”
Smith discusses the comedy marriage of Key & Peele in “Brother from Another Mother,” the comedy duo who grew their audience during the Obama presidency. “…Subject to all the normal pressures of a marriage,” their routine has reached its natural end, but while it was going on it poked fun at attitudes of whites while raising issues faced by blacks. It led us into a more mature understanding and way of interacting by highlighting the ways “blacks” are often not black at all, but mixed and even mostly white. Time to drag one’s consciousness into the 21st Century, America.

There is a whole section called “In The Gallery,” in which Smith discusses art, including the first time she noticed art at her mother’s apartment and later, going to museums or to other parts of Europe in search of art. Her father, she points out, was always a natural viewer of art, not intimidated by the notion that an ordinary working man should not be able to comprehend art. He stood in front of a painting or sculpture and could say what he saw or how it affected him. He taught his daughter with her fancy education something about naturalness. She attributes some of that naturalness to her father’s love of John Berger and his 1972 TV show Ways of Seeing.

In “Love in the Gardens” Smith’s discusses inviting her father to Italy with money from her first book. He’d wanted to spend more time in France, she found out later, but she was young and insistent on Italy. They visited gardens and cities positively overrun with tourists. He hardly took a picture, and he was an amateur photographer. Later, after her father had died, Smith went to live in Rome and found a place he would have loved. Why hadn’t we spent more time in Rome she wondered, as she took in the beauty of the statutes and the women. He would have loved it here.

One of the best reasons to pick up the hardcopy of this book are the photographs reproduced. When Smith is discussing a particular piece of art, she may include a reproduction, or perhaps a photograph both she and her brother picked out of her father’s collection independently of one another, a photograph of a newspaper-carrying father kissing his toddler upon his return home from work, while the mother, wearing a skirt and pumps and a chignon, watches television expressionlessly. It is titled "The Family is a Violent Event."

One of the last essays is about Justin Bieber, the pop music star, and Martin Buber, long-dead Jewish philosopher. Smith imagines a meeting between the two and discusses both in the context of Buber’s 1923 I-Thou and I-It essay. Not being familiar with Buber’s essay, I listened kind of clueless and the very next day came across another reference to Buber’s essay, of which I could say quite a little bit, gratis Smith’s introduction.

And a real meeting of minds when, in “Getting In and Out,” Smith talks about how "black is now cool," and how "white people want to get inside & walk around in black skin" now. But she elegantly demolishes the notion of how one “appropriates” experience by noticing it, by speaking of it, by writing about it. I had withheld my judgment on arguments about appropriation, all the time wondering how one can possibly NOT want people to understand, empathize, and yes, write about another’s experience as though it were their own. Smith makes the logical argument that a mixed person then cannot speak about the experience of someone with darker skin, though both have been labelled black, and what about someone who looks white but is, in fact, mixed? Will they have to pull out their credentials for all to make a decision whether or not she will have the right to speak of or even imagine the black experience?

I loved this book of essays and think England has got themselves a national treasure who can both write and think.
126 reviews104 followers
October 31, 2018

Zadie Smith must have felt freer in writing this book. She deals with a broad range of issues. There is no single theme that runs through them. There are essays that are quite ordinary. I have expected far more intellectually stimulating stuff from her. For instance 'North West London Blues' did not speak to me at all. In reading this book, I also have the feeling that since she is so well-known, no matter what she writes, she finds readers.

However, some of the essays are brilliant. For instance, I enjoyed reading 'Love in the Gardens.' Not that I found it intellectually stimulating, I like its free and frank nature – the homely touch. It seems to me that she could have written a full-length novel on that experience. I found it truly 'feel-free' sort of essay – a young woman spending some nice moments with her father.

For absolutely different reasons, I enjoyed reading 'Dance Lessons for Writers.' Even if one does not know the artists, one can still enjoy reading about them. It is one of the best essays in the book. The only essay where I stopped and reread, just to enjoy the words a little longer. The only difference between the essay I mentioned earlier and this one is this; once you read the essay 'DLW' you might not want to read it again; it impresses with its clever observations, but her essay 'Love in the Gardens' has that life-like quality that makes the reader go back to it again. It has moments that many of us can identify with it; it is a nice place to inhabit as it celebrates time spent with someone we value and admire such as a friend, a sibling, a parent, or a lover.

Actually, I have not read these essays in any particular order. The ones that I am instinctively drawn to are the ones that I read first. For instance, one such essay is called 'Life Writing,' but I was a bit disappointed as it was a short piece. Some of the other essays that I liked reading are 'On Optimism and Despair', 'Generation Why,' 'The I Who Is Not Me,' and 'Man versus Corpse.'

A long time ago I read her brilliant essay ''Fail Better.'' I guess essays like that compelled me to buy her book. But I found unexpected stuff. However, I must add that there are essays which do require some sort of background knowledge or a lot of patience to admire them. For instance the essays in the section titled 'The Gallery.' I skipped them. The failure was mine.
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
552 reviews167 followers
December 12, 2021
3.5 stars. Excellent writing that draws out the mystery and beauty found just beneath everyday experiences. Some topics are more superficial than others and many essays require prior exposure to really specific films or artwork etc. but everything gets a thorough and thoroughly delightful examination from Zadie Smith, who remains as bright and contemplative as ever.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews99 followers
February 24, 2019
Read as one book it's a bit much to spend all that time in someone else's head, but enjoyed these essays.
Profile Image for Julie.
161 reviews31 followers
February 4, 2019
I just found a writer that I absolutely adore. I will read everything Smith writes from now on. I'm slightly embarrassed that I haven't read her until now.

If you read nothing else in this book of essays and reviews, you must read the one on Justin Bieber. It's brilliant. Though, there are quite a few not-to-be missed essays in this collection. Reading this author, I felt full in the same way I do when I muse or write or leisurely read Woolf. While I read the book cover-to-cover, you could do so out of order. Though, I think there is value in reading them as the author arranged.

Zadie Smith is the kind of writer that can write interestingly about any subject. Put a paper clip and a naked tree in front of her and she will connect the two in a way that will be surprising and enlightening and quite possibly confounding, but never boring. Smith epitomizes Woolf's famous quote about being able to tell the truth of others if you are able to tell it about yourself. The author explores, excavates and expresses all of her subjects with beauty, wit, and intelligence. Smith dives deep and untangles some of the threads she finds while tangling others - and it just works for me on so many different levels.

The 400+ page book has some truly great essays. There's one that juxtaposed dancing and writing that was sublime. It reminded me of how Warren Buffet and his business partner Charlie Munger use models from different fields for their investment analyses. Maybe you have to be writer to swoon over this one. But I suspect, probably not.

Smith covers so many different areas in her essays, it's hard to think of what she didn't cover. She looks at what makes comedy work by talking to Key and Peele. She also fascinatingly dissects Peele's Oscar-winning Film "Get Out." She talks to Jay-Z and shines a light on why people get upset about some things but not others (especially when people get upset only about the reaction and not the thing that caused the reaction). She puts Facebook and it's creator under a microscope (and all the rest of us quite frankly). She writes about a library being demolished so luxury flats can be built and waxes poetic about how libraries are one of the few places that don't want your wallet or your soul.

I very much like Smith's writing style. It's casual and conversational without being sloppy or unstructured. She's witty and whip-smart with a strongly defined voice. You can hear her speak as you read. It's akin to reading David Sedaris, because you can't avoid hearing her voice when you read her.

About 25-percent of the book is devoted to book reviews she wrote for Harper's. The essays to that point had been so enjoyable that I was a bit put off when I started reading this section. It felt forced and like she didn't enjoy being a critic. It's clear Smith loves books as she mentions them often in her essays. I just wasn't feeling the love as three pages felt like reading twenty (and not in a good way). But, as we moved to writers and books Smith liked, it was not only smooth sailing, it was endlessly interesting. When I finished this section, I wished there had been another hundred pages of Smith reviewing books. I will be reading some books based on her reviews, including the one on insects (actually, I'm writing something now that I've imagined all the characters as metaphorical insects, so I will check out this book for some gems).

I could write something glowing about each of her essays, but I will just touch on a few below.

In one essay, she discusses how younger liberals censor opinions they consider wrong. She points the fingers back at older liberals: "Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing."

In another essay, she takes a look behind the historical curtain of progress and how while it moves slow, at least it does move and sometimes the smallest of victories make all the difference in the world: "It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous."

She strongly skewers the dream of going back to another time in history when things were "great." She points out that this only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded today were also accorded to you back then. "If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it's no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For black women, the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done - or more to the point, what would have been done to me - in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960 . . ."

She writes a beautifully deep and rich essay about how it's possible to so completely hate something that then turns into something you love unreasonably. There were so many delightful twists and turns in this essay, I felt like taking it for another ride.

One of her best essays in the collection was the one where she juxtaposes Schopenhauer and Charlie Kaufman. She dissects a film by the latter by quoting the former. It was delightful and deep, maybe because of Schopenhauer, maybe because of Kaufman. But more likely because she combined the two.

Any essay about time is always a find for me. I've probably spent more time pondering time than any other subject. Maybe it's because I was born five weeks late and haven't been on time since (my mom's joke). Smith describes a film about time, in real time over 24-hours, that sounds fascinating. The essay illuminates real and staged time or accidental clocks versus deliberate clocks.

There was something sweet and haunting about the art show she attended where she had one of the most intimate and real conversations she's ever had at an art show with a complete stranger. One that she never saw again. I've been lucky to have more than a few conversations like that in my life (my idea of a one-night stand I suppose).

Oh, make sure you read the essay on Billie Holiday and her dog. Smith wrote the essay as if she was talking to Holiday and the latter was talking back. There are some poignant parts of this essay like when people tell Holiday she's too skinny and her face looks like a death mask or the part about singing her iconic song "Strange Fruit." And the way she ended the essay on behalf of Holiday was just brilliant.

Equally as compelling is the essay about art, specifically about a painting of an old woman. The essay looks at how women are looked at. How they are either erotic objects or beyond such considerations. The irony is the portrait of the old woman who has moved beyond such considerations is a hot commodity (she goes into the why of that).

She writes elegantly about turning tragedy into grace in an essay about doing more than is necessary with less than you need. She starts off with Marilyn Monroe doing that famous scene in the movie Niagara (when she walks away and the shot is held for such a long time). This moves into someone else showing defiance in his own self-conception as he swaggers down the street in much the same grandeur as Marilyn.

One of her more poignant essays is about an Italian Renaissance charcoal drawing by Luca Signorelli of a naked man carrying a naked corpse. Smith tries to identify with the corpse, which is not easy because as she writes: "Death is what happens to everyone else." I love how Smith segues from the Renaissance to Warhol (most fascinating read). It made me think of that old joke about everything in life being about avoiding the knowledge that we will all die. And this reminded me of Oscar Wilde's famous quote about everything being about sex except sex. The fact that one day we will all be that corpse is something not many want to think about, including Smith. But it's something that, as she says, no amount of selfies can stave off. She sums up this essay by writing of a crypt in Rome where the bones of some thousand monks have been used to form scenes of fully dressed skeletons in rooms made of and furnished by bones and skulls. In one room, bones on the floor spell out: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

Her writings of gardens in France and Italy were lovely. The former on a trip with her father and the latter when moving there after her father died. I love how Italy lets dogs be truly free.

When Smith writes about the time she burned her building down, it was quite interesting in how having money colored that tragedy. "When money's scarce, life is a daily emergency, everything is freighted with potential loss, you feel even the smallest misstep will destroy you. When there's money, it's different, even a real emergency never quite touches you, you're always shielded from risk. You are, in some sense, too big to fail. Everything lost can be replaced."

Her essay on joy was a great way to end the book. Altogether, an excellent collection of essays. One could do worse than to spend some time with the likes of Smith. And I apologize that my review doesn't do her book justice (I know, this review is much too long and needs to be edited down).
Profile Image for Z. F..
298 reviews93 followers
August 13, 2019
"Readers who prefer their ideologies delivered straight—and straight-faced—will find [Zadie Smith] a frustrating read. To [Smith] the world is weird and various, comic and tragic. If this mixed reality can't always be fully admitted while standing on soapboxes, sitting in parliament, or marching down Whitehall, it should at least be allowed existence in novels."

In the original version of that quote Smith is describing the work of Buddha of Suburbia author Hanif Kureishi, not herself; but anyone who's read much Zadie Smith can see that really she is describing herself, too, because if there's one thing that defines Smith as a writer it's her Tolstoyan commitment to giving everyone a moment in the spotlight and showing the modern world for the endlessly complex tangle of perspectives and experiences it is.

At its worst, of course, that unwillingness to take a particular stance can result in a kind of noncommittal "both sides"-ism, and Smith admits in her foreword to this collection that her signature approach might not be what's needed in the age of Tr*mp: "I realize," she writes,

. . .my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world. It is of course hardly possible to maintain any feelings of ambivalence—on either side of the Atlantic—in the face of what we now confront.

And it's true that some of the selections in Feel Free (all of which were first published between 2010 and 2017, a solid third of them in the New York Review of Books) already feel pretty obsolete in 2019. Early on we get a review of David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network which then expands into a broader discussion about the difference between "2.0 people" (millennials, for all intents and purposes) and "1.0 people" (everyone older than millennials) and an argument that maybe Facebook doesn't actually have our best interests in mind, and if that sounds both painfully obvious and vaguely condescending in the way you'd expect to hear from your (grand)dad rather than a very sharp, at-the-time-35-year-old social commentator I agree completely.

But most of the book isn't like that. Just as she does with her fiction, Smith relishes the opportunity here to cast her net wide and haul in a huge array of seemingly-unconnected cultural items and human experiences and currents of thought, which she then proceeds to fit together in the most ingenious and unexpected ways. One of her favorite techniques is to pair up a piece of contemporary media with the work of a particular philosopher—Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 film Anomalisa as an expression of Schopenhauerian pessimism, Justin Bieber's fame viewed through the lens of Martin Buber's notion of true "meeting," Smith's own dawning appreciation for the music of Joni Mitchell framed as a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith"—and to work through these connections as long as they'll hold. Elsewhere you'll find her deriving lessons on writing from the methods of famous dancers, or using Jordan Peele's Get Out as a touchstone for the politics of cultural appropriation, or teasing out a metaphor for Manhattan work culture from a Corona beer slogan.

And okay, if that all sounds a bit academic and exhausting, I can't exactly say you're wrong. Smith's interests are both far-ranging and at times forbiddingly highbrow, and I'll admit to some boredom as she expounded on the merits of this or that contemporary visual artist or obscure Swiss author I'd never heard of. This is really more of a Collected Essays 2010 - 2017-type compendium than
a writings-on-a-particular-theme collection à la Joan Didion or Roxane Gay, so inevitably there's some fluctuation in tone and style (contrast her New York Times profile of Jay-Z with, say, her NYRB review of Karl Ove Knausgård) and some pieces that could be dropped without much loss to the overall reading experience.

But if you're willing to put your trust in Smith's considerable intelligence and authorial ability and allow yourself to be taken along for the ride, there's a whole lot here to appreciate. You have to have a certain temperament, I think, to enjoy this sort of writing—a willingness to get a little lost, to drop in mid-conversation, to read about certain books (or films or artists or whatever) even if you haven't encountered those things firsthand—but I'd guess that anyone who spends as much time reading Goodreads reviews as actual books (guilty!) is probably pretty at-home in that kind of territory already. And, as this website has no doubt taught us all, there's no telling what new interests you'll uncover if your mind is open and the argument is convincing. Prior to Feel Free, did I know about or have any desire to watch Christian Marclay's The Clock, a 24-hour film composed entirely of shots from other films featuring clocks? No! Do I now? Hell yeah!

At the end of the day Zadie Smith is what I'd call an author of ideas. Not in a pretentious, "I wrote this novel solely to persuade you of a particular philosophical point" way, but in an "Our world is not simple and we gain nothing by pretending it is" way. That sort of thinking doesn't lend itself very well to an elegant, streamlined presentation, and there are inevitably moments in all her books when she gets into the weeds or wanders a bit too far afield. If you prefer books to be pretty puzzles to solve (and hey, those are great too!) Smith probably isn't for you. But if you like that sense of exploration, that desire to dirty your hands in search of a deeper and more elusive truth, there are few these days who do it better.
Profile Image for David.
671 reviews337 followers
March 27, 2018
Zadie offers up a collection of her essays here but what's interesting it that she notes in the foreword that all of them were written during the Obama presidency and therefore a product of an already bygone world. An interesting prompt for an essay I'd wish she'd written as well.

I am the poor reader that is willing to meet the author part of the way but cannot subsist on language alone. That is to say Smith scores some easy hits for me with her essays on Jay-Z, Key and Peele and I loved her examination between writers and dancers and she convinced me that I need to read more art criticism, especially if it's done as well as her.

On the other hand her Harpers Magazine review of books I had no desire to read. While they are perfectly tuned to the specific style expected of the magazine they otherwise left me nodding off. Like any collection it's uneven. It's also a doorstopper of a read. But what shines is the warmth in which she speaks to the reader, perhaps a Zadie from a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world.
Profile Image for Max Urai.
Author 1 book33 followers
December 20, 2017
So: Zadie Smith, it seems, has replaced David Foster Wallace as my new person-to-aspire-to-be writer. Some pretty major shit going on with that right now. More as the story develops.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews592 followers
March 8, 2018
Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two. If my writing is a psychodrama I don't think it is because I have, as the internet would have it, so many feels, but because the correct balance and weight to be given to each of these three elements is never self-evident to me. It's this self – whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way “self-evident” – that I try to write from and to. My hope is for a reader who, like the author, often wonders how free she really is, and who takes it for granted that reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing.

In thirty-one essays, divided into five loose categories, Zadie Smith's Feel Free displays a mind of wide tastes and an enviable intellectual elasticity: Smith has diverse knowledge and a clear voice and she uses her gifts to assemble these little moments of harmony against the background noise. This is a book that asks to be read slowly, and I complied; enjoying most all of it (there are some book reviews for Harper's included that feel out of place; perhaps because Smith was writing for someone else, not herself.) In the end, nothing here really feels important – Smith isn't trying to convince the reader of anything – but as someone who has always been impressed by Smith's novels, I appreciated this more intimate glimpse into the workings of her mind; the font from where her art springs.

Because Zadie Smith is younger than I am, I described her the other day as “hip”; yet Smith will be the first to tell you that she is a throwback – a member of the last generation to grow up in a predigital age. Of those who came after her, Smith writes:

They've spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They've been making a world.

But it's not a world Smith necessarily likes: She ended up quitting Facebook two months after joining it (in 2010) because not only did she find it completely addicting, and therefore a waste of her limited time, but she immediately recognised it as one unpopular college sophomore's idea of how a circle of friends might look and act (the “pokes”, photosharing, an emphasis on favourite movies and TV shows in a personal profile). By then referencing Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget – in which he makes the point that by “locking in” to software that imperfectly captures the human experience, just because it's the one that was available in the beginning, we have begun degrading the entire human experience – Smith links pop culture (a viewing of The Social Network) with Lanier's respected scholarship, and filters it all through her own lived experience (I don't blame her for quitting Facebook if it led to every online page marketing her own books to her, lol). And this high-to-low-via-self formula is used frequently: Smith writes a scene-by-scene analysis of Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animated film Anomalisa via Schopenhauer, but we never forget that Smith herself figures into the equation as viewer (with her friend, Tamsin-the-Nietzschean, whispering in her ear in the movie theatre); she writes of hating the music of Joni Mitchell when she was younger, throws in some Kierkegaard, and then describes an epiphinal moment of discovering that she loves the music of Joni Mitchell; she explores the unenviable personal life of Justin Bieber through the philosophical writings of Martin Buber (their surnames are apparently alternate spellings from the same German root) and uses Bieber's example to find her own place in Buber's I-Thou/I-It dichotomy. There's a lot going on here. Smith writes:

When I find myself sitting at dinner next to someone who knows just as much about novels as I do but has somehow also found the mental space to adore and be knowledgeable about opera, have strong opinions about the relative rankings of Renaissance painters, an encyclopedic knowledge of the English Civil War, of French wines – I feel an anxiety that nudges beyond the envious into the existential. How did she find the time?

I can't imagine who these dinner companions are who nudge Smith into “existential anxiety” with their greater levels of esoteric knowledge. In Feel Free, Smith muses thoughtfully and knowledgeably about music, from writing from Billie Holiday's point-of-view to tripping to Q-Tip and sitting down with Jay-Z; discusses movies from Jordan Peel's Get Out to Christian Marclay's twenty-four hour opus The Clock (along with much commentary on all of the movie clips featured in this film); she responds to visual art from the paintings of old masters to Sarah Sze's multimedia installation, Centrifuge; although these pieces were written a bit too early to really capture our today of 2018, Smith writes politically about Brexit and gentrification and artists being priced out of lower Manhattan and the razing of London's libraries to throw up condos. And, in pretty much every essay, Smith ties in books – novels, poetry and non-fiction – and demonstrates how what she has read informs her responses to everything else she discovers in the world. As I sat here googling her references, I could only marvel, How did she find the time? And a note on this googling-while-reading: Despite Smith sighing more than once that she wishes she could give up her iPhone, if I didn't have one I couldn't have, in real time, admired Titian's portrait of twelve year old Ranuccio Farnese alongside Smith's text about it, read William Empson's short poem “Let it Go” to see how it figured into St. Aubyn's work, watched the Nicholas Brothers performing, in Stormy Weather, what Fred Astaire called “the greatest example of cinematic dance ever performed” (a routine I watched with tears in my eyes as I considered the detail that the scenes with the Nicholas Brothers used to be cut out of movies before they were shown in the South; so much beauty in their movements balanced against so much ugliness. Race makes an appearance every now and then in these essays, but it's not a main focus.) Smith even specifically asks us to google the lyrics to Justin Bieber's “Boyfriend” so she could avoid the licensing fees of reproducing them. I obliged. Despite the disparate subject matter, I think the main thesis – tying into that opening quote from the book's Introduction – comes from Smith's writing about the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, which pursue:

...the essential, living communication between art work and viewer, a relationship that Yiadom-Boakye reminds us is indeed vicarious, voyeuristic, ambivalent and fundamentally uncontrollable.

Smith seems to be saying that in these essays, as in her novels, she puts the art (which is her own reaction to the world) out there, knowing that she can't control what the reader will bring to the experience; can't control how that reader will react. Want to behave as though reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing? Feel free. There's so much in this book, and while some of it feels a little dated already, Smith captures something very interesting from her position at the intersection between the personal and the universal; and what she makes of it is art.
Profile Image for W.D. Clarke.
Author 3 books272 followers
July 4, 2020
Dipping into this from time to time over the past months was almost always a pleasure, as Ms. Smith's congenial-yet-slightly-deracinated tour guidance and co-conspiratorial interpellation of this reader could manage to somehow get him interested in such a diverse range of subjects as Brexit, Anomalisa, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Dance/Writing and Justin Bieber/Martin Buber nexuses (nexi?). The section on art in the gallery was fine (but could've benefited from some reproductions at least), but in the end it was those essays that were most highly personal (on climate Change, on her father's photography, on the importance of her local library, and on finally [finally!!] coming to love-love-love Joni O Canada Mitchell), and those about writers she admires (Ballard, Kureshi and Roth especially) that affected me the most. Brilliant stuff.

Yes, there were times when the writer-for-hire vibe came out a bit, and other times when I could feel her overtly reaching for some kind of purportedly hidden parallel between certain pairs of incommensurables (that neat kind of dovetailing and loose-ends tying-up that the "Only Connect" mind of an E.M Forster-influenced novelist might write into their fiction, but which in non-fiction is more likely to be imputed than it is to be legitimately discovered—and no, this was not the case in the clever Bieber/Buber essay!), but so what. She's simply great at what she does. & I simply need to read more of her fiction.
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews706 followers
November 21, 2019
I’ve read two collections of Smith’s essays back to back. And that allowed me to observe a great evolution from the older to the recent collection. The first one was written as if Zadie was put into a straightjacket to write it. The writing was too rigid as if she could not relax and just follow the flow of her thoughts. She was writing in the first person, but the impression was that it was not her. The voice was coming from somewhere outside. The essay on her visit to Liberia was the least successful of them all. There, it was not even first person narration, just a bunch of faceless observations. But even when she was writing about her dad’s participation in the war and his last years, she seems to be holding herself from telling too much about her feelings. The best one from that collection was the essay about the role of the writer and the reader according to Nabokov and Barth.

So, it was a relief to find that “Feel Free” is a different cattle of fish. It is more assured, more mature, more personal and simply more relaxed. Her essays have become compositionally more complex and therefore interesting. Her topics very widely as well. And she is not ashamed to be herself in her writing. The first part was on the recent political and social matters. She is unhappy about Brexit. But she does not try to simply the issue: “A profound shock I felt at the result and which so many Londoners seem to have experienced- suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become.” She touches upon the question of class in this respect. She illustrates her own awkwardness when her daughter has become friends with a little boy, but Zadie did not dare to invite him and his mum on a playdate as the mum was from a council estate. She did not want even to talk to Zadie as she perceived Zadie to be higher on a class ladder. This story is a little sad as it shows the extent of not simply economic but psychological gap between the people in the UK. Still it is hard for me to understand why Zadie did not feel enough courage to make the first move. But it is fair to say that i’ve never been in a similar situation, so I do not know what i would do.

I like her thoughtful measured attitude towards the race and identity politics within her essays:

“In my conscious life though I cannot honestly say I feel proud to be white and ashamed to be black or proud to be black and ashamed to be white. I find it impossible to experience either pride or shame over accidents of genetics in which I had no active part.”

And in the essay about The Buddha of Suburbia she writes: “Karim is nobodies victim.  From the point of view of our 21st century world where the only possible reaction to anything seems to be outraged offence, I find it relief to go back to that more innocent, hardier time, when we were not all such delicate flowers that every man’s casual idiocy had the awesome power to offend us to our very cores.“ I cannot agree more with her sentiment here. She deserves all the stars from me just for this sentence.

In another essay she contemplates about the nature of celebrity and the purpose of life. In order to do that, she contrasts Justin Bieber with Martin Buber, Jewish thinker of the 20t century. It is very interesting and well constructed essay, if only a little bit too crafty one.

Not surprisingly, she is the best when she talks about her creative process and about other books and authors. There are essays on Hanif Kureishi, St Aubyn, St Aubyn and many other. She talks about the role of the characters in her fiction: “My books don’t seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them.” She also tells about her struggle to use the first person narrations in her fiction.
Reading this second collection, I came to the conclusion that i prefer her current non-fiction work to her novels. And i hope it won’t take long for more of her non-fiction work to come.
Profile Image for merixien.
588 reviews326 followers
March 24, 2021
Yazarın çeşitli gazete ve dergilerde yayınlanan denemelerinin derlemesi. Brexit'ten, sahnelere, kitaplardan, dünya gündemine, felsefe ve sanata dair pek çok konuda görüşlerini anlattığı için, böyle bir derlemeye dair yorum yapmak çok zor. Ancak bence çok ilginizi çekmeyen konularda bile dikkatinizi kitapta tutması ve kendisini okutması açısından muazzam bir kitap. Konular arası geçiş yaparken herhangi bir kopma yaşamıyorsunuz. Kitabın ikinci bölüm "Sahnede" çok ilgimi çekmemesine karşın sıkılmadan okudum. Diğer bölümler zaten büyük bir keyifti. Zaman zaman tekrar açıp okumak isteyeceğim kitaplar arasında yerini aldı.

4,5 / 5
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
March 26, 2017
Start here:


Opening line of the Zadie Smith second person Billie Holiday tribute short story, told in second person, from Holliday's perspective:

"Well, you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days. . . Hair takes a while, face takes longer. It’s all work, it’s all a kind of armor."

And of her ambivalent relationships with women: "And you’ve always been—well, what’s the right term for it? A man’s lady? Men are drawn to you, all kinds of men, and not just for the obvious. . . Now, the women you tend to meet? They don’t know what to do with the God-blessed child, with the girl that’s got her own, who can stay up drinking with the clarinet player till the newspaper boys hit the corners. And maybe one of these broads is married to that clarinet player."

"It’s obvious to you that a voice has the same work to do, musically speaking, as the sax or the trumpet or the piano. A voice has got to feel its way in. Who the hell doesn’t know that?"

It's not really a short story, it's a tribute to Lady Day, but I liked it. Not loved it, but liked it. Made me listen to some of her music while I read today, thanks, Zadie.

Here it is: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...
Profile Image for Andre.
542 reviews146 followers
November 19, 2017
⭐️⭐️⭐️.5️⃣ The standout aspect of these essays is the writing is always stunning. It is not difficult to understand why Zadie Smith is hailed in all corners of the literary world. There is an essay where she is talking about Joni Mitchell’s music and the passion rising off the page made me go, search and listen to some Joni Mitchell tunes. Wow. That is the power of effective, great, and passionate reading. The one drawback to this collection is the lack of clarity about when these essays were crafted. The lack of dates attached to the pieces is frustrating, although at times the content will be the clue to the time period. Reading through the essays you get the impression that Zadie Smith is a very sharp intelligent woman. Someone that you would love to engage in conversation. She is highly engaged when discussing art, writers, and culture even though some references will feel obscure.

Why Feel Free as a title? As she writes in the forward, “I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist. I’m employed in an MFA programme, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you? Essays about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on. All they have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free, because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority. She can reject my feelings at every point, she can say: ‘No, I have never felt that’ or ‘Dear Lord, the thought never crossed my mind!’“ I have been enriched and informed by these essays and I'm confident most readers will come away with a similar conclusion.Thanks to Edelweiss and Penguin Books for an advanced ebook. Book will hit shelves February 18, 2018.
8 reviews24 followers
March 13, 2018
I absolutely loved this book. My first Zadie Smith, but not my last. I want to be her BFF. Her mind is lively, free-ranging, compassionate, self-effacing... I just love her!
(By the way, I read this as an audiobook, which I highly recommend. The reader is great.)
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews502 followers
July 7, 2019
Zadie Smith is one of those authors I "met" in the early aughts when her fiction was really just starting to become a thing. I worked at an independent bookstore in Columbia, Missouri at the time, and we had a table in the front of the store covered with new trade paperbacks. I wasn't so much into contemporary fiction/nonfiction at the time, preferring primarily the classics. But each summer I took a trip to visit my grandparents in Wisconsin via Greyhound bus, and on those occasions I would search the trade paperback table to find one or two books that seemed like they would be interesting to travel with.

Smith was one of the authors I picked up in that way, and one of the authors I actually started before my trip and finished before I got on the bus. Whoops.

I finally took this opportunity now to revisit her by reading her essays. I liked what I had read of her fiction back then so I looked forward to reading these essays.

Can I just say she is wicked smart? I have such a brain-crush on Smith.

Her thicc essay collection is split into five parts, with four or more essays in each section: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. While most essay collections are hit-or-miss (as in the individual essays are generally hit-or-miss), I didn't find that was necessarily the case with Smith's writing. I found a way to connect to just about every piece, sometimes in very surprising ways.
I don't remember the name of my particular pill head, but will call him Smiley. He was one of those strangers you met exclusively on dance floors, or on a beach in Ibiza. They tended to have inexplicable nicknames, no home or family you could ever identify, a limitless capacity for drug-taking and a universal feeling of goodwill toward all men and women, no matter their color, creed or state of inebriation.
Mine was called Vertigo.

It's been years since I've read Smith's fiction and a part of me wants to return to it now to see if I feel the same about it nearly twenty years later. But mostly I want to continue reading more of her essays. She has thoughts on race and popular culture that feel new and refreshing, even though they truly are not. I never once felt like she was making shit up as she went along, which is refreshing, because some essayists really do that sort of thing. Smith seemed genuine in her desire to understand something or someone, taking the time to get to know the facts before putting her thoughts down on paper. I really appreciated that.

Don't be discouraged by the fact that this collection is over 400 pages long. It reads surprisingly quickly. It's authors like Smith that make me wonder what the fuck I am doing in graduate school because I will never be able to write essays like her. Dammit.

Seriously, though. I haven't thought about Vertigo in years.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews602 followers
November 16, 2019
[3++] It is totally unfair to rate this collection only 3 stars but this rating is partially for me as a reader. Smith is the most dazzlingly brilliant essayist I've read and when her thoughts connect with my brain, it is like fireworks - opening up synapses long dormant and making me dizzy with new ideas. There are a handful of essays in this collection that I thought were amazing! She is scary smart and disconcertingly humble.

Yet in this collection, I ended up skimming several of the essays as I just couldn't connect to her thesis - often relating to a film or book or piece of music or philosopher I was unfamiliar with and wasn't willing to put in the work to understand. Thus the 3 stars - really for my shortcomings as a reader.
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews252 followers
December 14, 2019
3.5 probably. There are some cracking essays in here, and Smith is always thoughtful and engaging as a writer. I felt like the collection could have been edited down a bit - it felt like a compendium of every essay she'd written in a five year period. The section on books was probably my favourite overall, but I thought the essay on dance/writing was just brilliant. Definitely worth your time.
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
684 reviews603 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
November 7, 2018
I did a fifth of this collection of essays on audio and came up against the same brick wall that makes me deeply dislike her fiction: she is so stuck up in her head that I don’t feel a god damn thing when I read her. I’m glad Zadie Smith exists in the world, but she is not a writer for me.
Profile Image for Amy.
538 reviews46 followers
May 25, 2018
No thanks.

Zadie Smith is a brilliant woman, but I feel like her brand is intended for someone other than myself. This book would probably best fit in the hands of coasties--someone on the cusp of living the lifestyle Smith writes about. Think SoulCycle. Think people who unironically say "writer's ennui" and bicker about the plebeian selection of wine at the grocer's. I can see these folks trying to live vicariously through her art criticisms, offhand mentions of Italians piazzas and gardens, and British political pontification.

Me? Not so much.

I really lost count of the number of times I muttered, "Jesus Christ, Zadie, we get it. You're smart." The grand majority of her essays felt like long ramblings that begged to be skimmed or skipped altogether. When she did have an interesting point, its arrival only seemed to come after an arduous, unnecessary journey through 500 allusions to obscure artists, poets, and philosophers. If I read the word "solipsism" one more time in the next month (I swear she must have used it ten times in a single essay), I'll eyeroll hard enough to faint.

Maybe some of this ire stems from personal jealousy or is just a kickback reflex of my dumb mind. I should clarify that she does have some accessible articles in here that feel relevant, but the inclusion of them really only serves to highlight how jumbled the rest of the essays feel. Why do you have thoughts about Joni Mitchell caught between the same covers as art installation critiques? Why is an essay about Brexit rubbing shoulders with the author's use of "I" in a novel? The free-for-all feel was not charming. A theme was sorely lacking.

The biggest lesson I took away from this collection is that I cannot keep up with Zadie Smith on an intellectual level. That is very, very clear to me.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
March 12, 2018
It is an absolute joy and a pure pleasure to read Zadie Smith. With her wit, charm, and beautiful prose in this collection, she more than makes up for Swing Time. I love the essay and I love Zadie Smith and this collection is both of those at their very best. I've read all of Smith's fiction and have loved most of it, but this is everything I love about her--her playful writing, astute observations, and wisdom distilled. I don't even care that half of the essays are about stuff I've never heard of--art shows, books, whatever. I will read a Zadie Smith essay on nearly anything. In one of the last essays, she explains what it's like to enjoy a pineapple popsicle and it's a vision I will never forget. The pure delight of just enjoying a pineapple popsicle. This book was one pineapple popsicle after another.
Profile Image for Rozhan Sadeghi.
262 reviews353 followers
April 27, 2021
Feel Free was a ride!

Zadie Smith is very insightful and I loved reading her deep thought process about some subjects I have daily encounters with but as for any other collection I liked some essays better than the rest simply because I cared about the topic more or I could relate to them and understand them better.

But the biggest let down for me was the excess of American and British pop culture references that made it hard for me to properly enjoy her essays.

All in all, given that I really really liked her writing and her way of seeing the world, I think I'll enjoy her work more in a novel format.
Profile Image for Lara.
4,154 reviews340 followers
December 12, 2017
Just gonna say, Some Notes on Attunement is one of the best essays about music I've ever read. I know 100% nothing about Joni Mitchell. I'm sure I've heard something of hers at some point, but I have no idea what, and I've always sort of put her in this camp with U2 and the Beatles and Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton (aka artists that a lot of people really, really love and who are generally considered some of music's greats, but whom I have absolutely no interest in). This essay made me want to fall in love with Joni, expect to fall in love with Joni, before even listening to a single note, and also articulated so well that feeling of looking back on a former version of yourself and wondering who that person even was, as well as just...the ways we sometimes just close ourselves off to some things while leaving the doors wide open for others. Zadie Smith is magic.

My homework for today: listen to Joni.

Anyway, there are a lot of really great essays in here. I struggled with some of the book reviews because I didn’t really know what she was talking about (I kinda don’t read much literary fiction, sorry!), but then there were also a number of other essays about things I might never have even heard of that made me want to run out and experience those things RIGHT NOW (like Joni Mitchell, although of course I’d at least heard of her). I think maybe it depended on how Smith connected with those things personally...when she got excited about a subject, I did too!

In conclusion, I really love this woman’s way of writing and I feel ridiculous for never having read anything of hers until now. I will be reading her novels, literary fiction or not, ASAP.

Thanks, Penguin and Goodreads for the opportunity to read and review!
Profile Image for Ellen.
315 reviews
January 29, 2018
It seems there are two kinds of readers when it comes to Zadie Smith: those who love and admire her writing and those who dislike and are annoyed by it. I typically fall into the former camp: her gift with prose is deft, her intellect fierce, and I get a kick out of the characters she creates in her fiction. Curiously, I'm smack in the middle with this collection of essays. Her keen intelligence glimmers on every page, no doubt, and when she's musing on a relevant topic--social media, Italy, Jordan Peele, libraries and bookstores, Brexit--I'm completely hooked. In fact, she can even pique interest in people I didn't know I wanted to learn more about: Jay-z and Joni Mitchell, I'm looking at you. However, at 448 pages, this collection is full of essays that were far too subject-specific and of which I knew nothing. Reviews of paintings and books I'd never even heard of and Harper's columns on no-longer pertinent topics, for instance. Her wide-ranging curiosity is impressive but you'd have to be an enormous fan to want to read all that is contained here. On a side note, I was also annoyed that the essays were undated. Some mentioned a specific date or time period or it was obvious because of what was happening in them, but most did not.
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