Mallory O’Brian: Don’t play dumb with me.
Sam Seaborn: No, honestly, I am dumb. Most of the time I’m playing smart.
West Wing: Six Meetings Before Lunch (#1.18) (2000)
Even as a pretentious know-it-all high school freshmen, Mallory and Sam’s exchange resonated with me when I first saw that episode. The idea of pretending to be smart and actually being dumb was one of those neurotic things that crops up in a teenage mind. Now, eleven years later, that is one of the first pieces of dialogue that comes to mind when I think of West Wing lines that have stuck with me to this day. It came to mind as I read Zadie Smith’s “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.”
Any time you tell people, you want to read 100 books in a year, no less, the top 100 books as chosen by The New York Times, some folks will assume you are smart. A lot of times, even these days with teenagedom long gone, I feel as if I’m playing smart, just waiting to be caught and exposed as dumb. As I read Smith’s collection of essays, I kept feeling caught for the dumbass I actually am. Here is the thing though, I loved the book. Not in some self-loathing or ironic way. For real.
“Changing My Mind” is a collection of essays, lectures, movie reviews, and articles that Smith has produced in the last few years. The book is divided into sections on reading, being, seeing, feeling, and remembering. Each section has chapters within, with the exception of remembering which is a long essay on David Foster Wallace and his “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.”
Particularly in the section dedicated to DFW, reading, and seeing, most of the art Smith refers to is familiar to me in name only. Of the books she examines, I’ve only read Zora Neale Houston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and I’ve viewed very few of the films she examines in her essays or reviews for the paper. Despite this lack of knowledge or familiarity with the culture that is at the center of her focus, she doesn’t lose this novice. This fact is a testament to Smith’s skills as a writer, and in some ways, as a teacher.
Smith starts these sections by throwing the reader in the deep end of the work she is examining. Be it a comparison of Vladimir Nabokov and Roland Barthes, the future of the novel, or notes on Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, you will start each essay deep in details of the topic. Slowly, Smith brings more light to the subject with smart, but understandable explanations for the theories and backstories. By the end of most essays, I was eager to grab the book described or sit down and watch the just-deconstructed movie. It is rare to find writing that manages to go this deep into the constructs of literature and film and not lose its reader. In the film section, there is one piece on her thoughts from attending the Oscars which is one of the best parts of the book.
In the other sections, there is a lecture on how she goes about her craft, an must-read article on her trip to Liberia in the aftermath of its civil war and election of Ellen Sirleaf Johnson to the presidency, and the loss of her local British dialect. The section on feeling is primarily focused on her father, his experience in World War II, his love of comedy, and her interactions with him in the last years of his life. The essay on her father and his memories of Normandy is touching and haunting.
Much like Smith, my father was already getting up there in years when I was born. Her effort to connect with him and the memories from his young adult life echoes conversations that my father and I’ve stumbled into about his days as an urban pioneer in 1960s Brooklyn. These moments, for Smith and myself, are glimpses into people who had already lived through and were participants in big events long the before the big event that was our arrivals.
With the realization that this could be a bit meta, “Changing My Mind” serves as an interesting line of demarcation in the Boston Book Blitz. Zadie Smith devotes an entire essay to the act of reading and the rights of the reader vs. the author. She also writes about writing, as well as the previously mentioned essays on literature. All of these serve as an opportunity to step back, at least when it comes to fiction, and examine the 40 or so novels still unread with a new perspective at my disposal. In the meantime, pick up “Changing My Mind” by Zadie Smith and I’m putting her novels on my list of books to read.