Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

Changing My MInd

What It’s About

Assorted essays, written for various occasions by award winning author Zadie Smith.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are some books you read because you want to learn a particular lesson, and others you read because they are fun, and some books you read because they feel like a friend. This is a good friend book. Reading it feels like going out for a cup of coffee with the author, and rambling on about literature and movies and politics and places she’s travelled to. In terms of content, I did get a lot out of this book. It convinced me to hurry up and read Middlemarch already, reshaped my understanding of the whole “death of the author” debate, and gave me a new way to frame how I approach writing (I’m, apparently, a macro-planner, rather than a micromanager). But it’s not a book that you go into knowing what you’re going to get out of it. You read it because Zadie Smith is a person worth listening to, even when she herself isn’t sure what she thinks.

The book is titled Changing My Mind with good reason. While she has strong opinions, she is also, like most interesting people, in a constant state of re-evaluating them. Many of these essays are almost short stories of how her thinking has evolved, as new things occur to her, as somebody points something out, or as something unexpected happens. At times she almost comes across as intellectually ostentatious, but then reveals a very English self-deprecation. You like hearing what she thinks, even when you disagree, because you don’t feel frustrated. Instead, you feel that, if you were to stand in front of her and make a counterpoint, she’d listen with interest and keep talking it over with you.

These essays all have a meandering, conversational feeling to them. Sure, they have topics and themes and all that literary stuff, but she can start out quoting Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and end up talking about Barack Obama as a symbol of our changed expectations for leaders in an era of globalization. But it all hangs together, because those are both people who engage in code-switching; who pick up one style of speaking and then learn another. And that connection is interesting, because of what that says about identity, and how we judge the identities of others, and how willing we are to let people have multiple identities, and when the insistence on multiple identities becomes its own way to condense your own personhood, and…..

I found it all great stuff to think about, and I think you will too.

Content Warnings

She alludes to adult content, from violence to suicide to sex to former child soldiers in Liberia. She avoids being graphic, and often it seemed not that she was being delicate out of some sensitivity, but because she had interesting things to say that didn’t need to plunge you into the visceral experience in order to say them. In other words, you’re probably good.

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