In the final essay of Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith notes that critics of her subject, David Foster Wallace, have rhetorically wondered, “Did he truly want to give you a gift? Or only to demonstrate his own?” Smith clearly has unfettered admiration for Wallace’s cavernous intellect and briny, reference-filled texts, but she is fair in acknowledging the inherent difficulties of his work.
Then the emotion and intensity enters, emphatic and seamlessly integrated, but sharp. Now that Wallace is dead, Smith argues, it particularly behooves us to begin thinking of his writing as a gift to us. She grabs us with her opinion, but she also possesses the prowess, both as a writer and a thinker, to defend her opinion, and to lyrically and generously coax her readers into sharing her respect for Wallace, suggesting that reading him his akin to being a musician: It requires work, practice and reciprocation.
Smith’s defense of Wallace is meticulous, firm, empathetic and almost personal. A touch of nervous tenderness ultimately urges the question lurks beneath the entire collection: Does Smith truly want to give us a gift? Or does she just want to demonstrate her own?
The collection does well to prove that Smith is markedly brilliant, and in more ways than one. Her essays span an uncannily broad range of subjects. She dissects Kafka and dishes on movie stars. She reports live from Liberia and second-hand on the Normandy Invasion. She is perceptive beyond her extensive knowledge, and as comfortable in free fall as she is in the Ivory Tower. Like Wallace, her writing is almost unthinkably dense, but in this collection, it is also captivatingly human. In a sense, we are given a snap shot of Smith’s mind and life; she has been an academic, a novelist, a reporter, a fan, a daughter, and an observer.
The choice to include all these diverse essays in the same collection has been justified by dividing the book into five parts: reading, being, seeing, feeling, remembering. The trajectory gives the sense that we are reading an abstract memoir. Smith manages to reveal a great deal of herself in her work, and even more in the differences between her pieces.
She weaves in and out of her own humanity. Her dueling natures are particularly apparent in the “Seeing” section, when her sharp analysis of films and actors are easily knitted into revelatory, simple and honest feelings about the works. Smith adores Katherine Hepburn and the essay reads as though she is talking about an accomplished older sister. The ensuing piece on My Fair Lady provides a platform to discuss issues of race, class and assimilation; also subjects that resonate personally for Smith.
Her opening essay sets the tone by serving as a both a sample and a template of all the things that will be included in the book. Smith’s account of Zora Neale Hurston is first as a black woman, then as a reader, and of course as a critic. But the meat of the essay is Smith’s grappling with her ability to be objective as a critic. By relating her own experience, she challenges the perception of black female writers at large, and even explores the attitude that women writers are somehow lesser than their male counterparts. Smith is writing about someone else, but she is simultaneously reflecting on her own career as black female author. She is self-aware without self-absorbed, shares her voice without yelling, and gives the reader not only the gift of her wisdom, but also the gift of her humanity.
When memoirs are a dime a dozen, essays provide the opportunity for an author to integrate a personality into an educational piece. Perhaps Smith’s gift to us is that she makes things are very far away seem very close. Most of Smith’s readers will trail behind her as she tackle Nabakov, and its unlikely that any will be flies on the wall at the Oscars. Her easy style makes these pieces simple and accessible; Smith seems to say exactly what we would say, only in a much snazzier, smarter way. She demonstrates how one goes about living a contemplative, conscious life. Her book is a fingerprint of her mind, and a map of its journey.