Feel Free: Essays

Feel Free: 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...

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Title:Feel Free: Essays
Author:Zadie Smith
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Edition Language:English

Feel Free: Essays Reviews

  • Max Urai

    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.

  • Trish

    The essays in this book have been published before, mostly in the

    and

    , 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

    The essays in this book have been published before, mostly in the

    and

    , 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:

    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

    .

    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

    and

    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,

    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.

  • Rod-Kelly Hines

    There's enough here for any and everybody to enjoy! Brava Queen!

  • Diane

    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.)

  • Krista

    In thirty-one essays, divided into five loose categories, Zadie Smith's

    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

    included that feel out of place; perhaps because Smith was writing for someone else, not herself.) In the end, nothing here really feels

    – 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:

    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

    – 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

    ) 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

    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

    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

    dichotomy. There's a lot going on here. Smith writes:

    I can't imagine who these dinner companions are who nudge Smith into “existential anxiety” with their greater levels of esoteric knowledge. In

    , 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

    to Christian Marclay's twenty-four hour opus

    (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,

    ; 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,

    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

    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

    , 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:

    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?

    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.

  • Khush

    Zadie Smith must have felt freer in writing this book. She deals with a broad range of issues in her essays. 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.

    Some of the essays are brilliant, but the

    Zadie Smith must have felt freer in writing this book. She deals with a broad range of issues in her essays. 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.

    Some of the essays are brilliant, but they are not too many. 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.

    For absolutely different reasons, I enjoyed reading 'Dance Lessons for Writers.' Even if one does not know about the artists, one can enjoy what she has to say 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 one read go back to it again and 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; 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 only two or three pages long. 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'' and I guess essays like that compelled me to buy her book. However, I must add that there are essays which do require some sort of background knowledge or a lot of patience to admire them in the section titled 'The Gallery.' I skipped them because I did not understand.

  • [p]aulie

    eclectic material like christian marclay's 24 hr movie,

    ; mark bradford's video homage to marylin monroe's walk in

    ; sarah sze's "centrifuge" art installation; brexit/english politics and policies; the film

    (wonderful film, frustrating essay - zadie,

    eclectic material like christian marclay's 24 hr movie,

    ; mark bradford's video homage to marylin monroe's walk in

    ; sarah sze's "centrifuge" art installation; brexit/english politics and policies; the film

    (wonderful film, frustrating essay - zadie,

    you are familiar with schopenhauer; must you find annnnnnny and evvvvvvvvery excuse to stuff his name into the crust that is this essay?!? it seemed like there were fourteen mentions too many past the point where i said if i see that name once more i'll [depends on mood]), a rather fun key & peele interview, a number of book reviews, and personal stories/tidbits throughout.

    what i thought would take four to five days to complete took close to two months, and i must admit i did skip some of the essays (either they were just too brutally unexciting a few pages in or the subject matter seemed the aforementioned without sampling any). for me, collecting all these essays together made for an extremely dense read. i'll accept all the weight, but ms. smith is just too academically elevated compared to myself; if the language didn't feel like it was going over my head naturally it felt like she was indeed trying too hard. again, it's not that i didn't enjoy learning new material, but with so many lengthy, linguistically labyrinthian lines after line after line (

    ) it made the reading experience a chore - the retained, absorbed information too little a consolation prize.

  • Roman Clodia

    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

    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.

  • David Yoon

    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 ex

    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.

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