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Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

F or Zadie Smith , criticism is a bodily pleasure, not an abstracted mental operation. Reading, like eating, caters to her ravenous but discriminating appetite: she finds the essence of Kafka in a sliver of words from his diary, carved, she says, as thin as Parma ham and containing the creator's "marbled mark". She doesn't need a snack when watching a film, because her eyes are feeding on the images: Brief Encounter is, for her, a chunk of Wensleydale cheese, inimitably English. The critical arguments in which Smith engages are as vital and as potentially violent as sexual wrestling matches, and in an essay on Katharine Hepburn she recalls that she ejected two lovers from her bed – on separate occasions, I should explain – because they disagreed with her about the relationship between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib .

Smith consumes books and films, by which I mean that she absorbs them, seizing on them with all her acute, avid senses. When she was 14, her mother gave her Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to read. The aim was to raise Zadie's biracial consciousness, though the result, vividly described in the first essay in this volume, was more intense and more transformative. "I inhaled that book," Smith recalls (like an oenophile, she reads through her nostrils). It took her three hours to finish the volume and she expressed her critical judgment on it in a fit of grateful, ecstatic tears. When her mother called her to dinner, she took the book to the table, not because she intended to discuss it but because it was in itself a meal, offering her communion with the nutritious blood and body of its author.

This is not the way critics are supposed to comport themselves. Smith's enthusiasm is almost shocking; she breaks the rules established by the black-gowned, gruel-blooded nerds in universities who murder books by dissecting them, reduce poems and novels to texts which are no more than snarled networks of verbal signals and revenge themselves on the literature they secretly hate by writing badly about it.

Reading for Smith is a mind-changing, life-giving, soul-saving affair and her criticism has a missionary urgency. In a long and brilliant study of Middlemarch – which persuaded me to change my mind about a novel I've always considered tiresome – she avows that "love enables knowledge, love is a kind of knowledge". She is referring to George Eliot's Spinozistic union of emotional experience and moral perception, but she might also be articulating her own creed as critic. The intellectual revelations Smith purveys derive from and are ignited by her love for the books she has read.

In her first novel, White Teeth , she called tradition "a sinister analgesic", as deeply embedded and degenerate as dental caries. She has changed her mind about that, because for her, as the title of her collection implies, criticism is a record of the mind's growth and its game-playing versatility. Her review of a collection of EM Forster's radio book chat exactly defines Smith's newly congenial attitude to the literary past. Forster made her the gift of his talent – she used Howards End as the model for her most recent novel On Beaut y – and she is repaying his generosity, just as he settled his debts to his predecessors in those broadcast talks.

He refused, Smith notes, to call what he did "literary criticism, or even reviewing"; he was making "recommendations", like a "chatty librarian leaning over the counter". His modesty was "peculiarly English", a sly way of appeasing the country's hostility to culture. Smith has fewer misgivings about her own impassioned intelligence, but she is engaged in the same activity.

Her task, however, is harder than Forster's was, because as well as disarming popular anti-intellectualism, she has to confront the over-intellectualised commissars of academic criticism. In a superb essay on Nabokov and Barthes, she explores the battling claims of writer versus reader, creator versus theorist, acknowledging that the dispute is being fought out inside her. As a student, she delighted in Barthes's obituary for authorship, which licensed readers to rewrite texts and use them as alibis for indulging political gripes and sexual kinks.

Surely this libertarian practice was preferable to Nabokov's snooty expectation that readers should be worshippers, in awe of the author's genius? Smith's experience as a novelist persuaded her, once again, to change her mind and her essay restores faith in "the difficult partnership between reader and writer".

Hence her knowing use of a theological word when she says that in Middlemarch Eliot makes "literary atonement" for our isolation by filling her book "with more objects of attention than a novel can comfortably hold". That thronging abundance is the delight of White Teeth . The narrator of Ian McEwan's Atonement worries that art can't atone for the errors and crimes of art, because its solutions are fictional and illusory; Smith at her most fervent has no such doubts. An author, in her view, is not a despotic Nabokovian god. In a wonderful aside about the indeterminacy of meaning in Shakespeare, she remarks that "the idea of a literary genius is a gift we give ourselves, a space so wide we can play in it forever". This makes me want to throw a ball to her and bounce up and down in the hope of catching it when she retaliates.

Changefulness is Smith's theme throughout this collection. A lecture delivered at the New York Public Library remembers how she changed her voice, advancing from the glottally stopped argot of Willesden to the posher, plummier vowels she imbibed at Cambridge – though her aim, as she admits, was to be polyvocal, to alternate between those idioms, and she praises Obama, "a genuinely many-voiced man", for possessing the same flexibility. (Her homage to the new president dates from soon after his election, when her "novelist credo" led her to hope that his command of different vocal registers would lead to "a flexibility in all things". A year later, Obama is beginning to look merely slippery, flexing himself by inconclusively running on the spot.)

Elsewhere, Smith praises fluidity, another name for the same virtue. She finds it in the languid grace with which Robert De Niro opens a fridge door in Mean Streets , in the "elastic" expressiveness of Claire Danes in Shopgirl as against the "unmoving, waxy face" of the Botoxed Steve Martin and in the athleticism of Raymond Carver's prose. For a writer, fluency is "the ultimate good omen": if the words are pouring out, they're probably good words. Its opposite is fixity, a calcification that sets the mind in stone and prepares the body for rigor mortis. This Smith detects in Wordsworth when he reneges on the revolutionary idealism of his youth, in the elderly bigotry of Kingsley Amis and in the defeatism of all those who, having reached the age of 50, stop reading contemporary fiction. These justified digs made me check on the state of my own stiffening joints and hardening arteries, my calcium-encrusted dogmas and sclerotic orthodoxies. It's good to know that, while my body rusts, I can keep my mind stretched and nimble by reading Zadie Smith.

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  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ 0141019468
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Books; 0 edition (January 1, 2011)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
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About the author

Zadie smith.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations, and a collection of short stories, Grand Union.

White Teeth won multiple 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. She is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

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Changing My Mind

Occasional Essays

By Zadie Smith

By zadie smith read by barbara rosenblat, category: essays & literary collections | literary criticism, category: essays & literary collections | literary criticism | audiobooks.

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About Changing My Mind

“[These essays] reflect a lively, unselfconscious, rigorous, erudite, and earnestly open mind that’s busy refining its view of life, literature, and a great deal in between.” — Los Angeles Times Split into five sections–Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering– Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays, some published here for the first time, reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas. Whether writing on Katherine Hepburn, Kafka, Anna Magnani, or Zora Neale Hurston, she brings deft care to the art of criticism with a style both sympathetic and insightful. Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent, and funny–a gift to readers and writers both.

Also by Zadie Smith

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About Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time; as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia; three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations; a… More about Zadie Smith

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“Smith writes with a beguiling mix of assurance and solemnity, borrowing her vocabulary from many intellectual and cultural sources… Smith’s native intelligence, however, seems so formidable that you can’t help hoping she’ll change her mind yet again.” — The New York Times Book Review   “Smith brings her novelist’s gifts— an eye for detail, a languid turn of phrase— to the essay form.” —The Boston Globe   “Taken together, [these essays] reflect a lively, unselfconscious, rigorous, erudite and earnestly open mind that’s busy refining its view of life, literature and a great deal in between… Smith shows herself in more ways than one to be a very old, empathetic head on ridiculously young shoulders… It’s in her impassioned, compulsively dialectical and endearingly wonkish inquiry into literature that Smith really takes off.”— Los Angeles Times   “ It doesn’t seem to matter what she’s writing about—Kafka, her father, Liberia, George Clooney. Just placing anything within the magnetic field of her restlessly intelligent brain is enough to make it fascinating. Smith ( White Teeth ) has the gift…of showing you how she reads and thinks; watching her do it makes you feel smarter and more observant just by osmosis.”— Time   “Warmly insightful pieces that tease apart knotty strands of human experience… She has an uncanny eye for detail, on the streets of Liberia or at an Oscar gala in Los Angeles.”  — O Magazine  

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Other Voices, Other Selves

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By Pankaj Mishra

  • Jan. 14, 2010

“To write critically in English,” Zadie Smith asserts in the opening essay of “Changing My Mind,” “is to aspire to neutrality, to the high style of, say, Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson.” Praising Zora Neale Hurston, Smith complains that the mandarin critical mode elevates the experiences of white people to the norm while making “black women talking about a black book” look sectarian. Smith’s own way of escaping this narrow assumption is to declare boldly, “Fact is, I am a black woman.” A writer like Hurston, Smith adds, makes “ ‘black woman-ness’ appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals.” Hurston also allows Smith “to say things I wouldn’t normally — things like “She is my sister and I love her.”

After this sonorous declaration, you might expect Smith to reclaim writers and books on behalf of millions of complex individuals whose experiences are misrepresented, insufficiently written about or simply ignored. But she means for us to take the title of her book seriously. “Ideological inconsistency,” she writes in her foreword, “is, for me, practically an article of faith.” The essays that follow discuss some prominent dead white writers (George Eliot, Kafka, E. M. Forster, Nabokov, Barthes, David Foster Wallace), but they display no Edward Said-style counterreading of canonical texts. Their quirky pleasures derive from Smith’s own critical persona — always bold, jauntily self-reflexive and amusing — and her inspired cultural references, which include both Simone Weil and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

There is little hint of Smith’s culturally diverse background in her essays on (mostly Hollywood) movies and stars; they belong recognizably to an Anglo-American tradition of writing about cinema that alternates between masochistic reverence and slash-and-burn japery. And Smith resembles a French avant-gardist of the 1950s and ’60s rather than a postcolonial writer in her most ambitious essay, “Two Directions for the Novel,” which attacks the metaphysical pretensions of the “lyrical-realist” tradition that evidently dominates “Anglophone” fiction.

In this essay (which compares Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” with Tom McCar­thy’s “Remainder”), Smith passes over the many novels from outside the West that have helped expand traditional bourgeois notions of self and identity. Yet her essay on Barack Obama is replete with the postcolonial-cum-postmodernist themes — hybridity, mimicry and ambivalence — that professors of literature and cultural studies commonly employ in American and British universities. Smith’s hope that Obama’s “flexibility of voice” may lead to “flexibility in all things” derives not so much from hardheaded political analysis as from academic high theory, which assumes that those who live between cultures best represent and articulate the human condition today. According to Smith, the moral of Obama’s story is that “each man must be true to his selves, plural.”

On this point, at least, Smith is ideologically consistent. In fact, the idea that “the unified singular self is an illusion” could be the leitmotif of this collection. It allows Smith to revisit her own early assumptions and to question such essentialist notions as “black woman-ness.” Reflecting on Kafka’s ambivalence about his ethnic background, she writes: “There is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (‘What have I in common with Jews?’) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.”

This may sound a bit melodramatic. But then — as Salman Rushdie and other practitioners of postcolonial postmodernism have stressed — ambivalence, doubt and confusion are essential to forming dynamic new hybrid selves. Smith seems to bring to this now entrenched critical orthodoxy the particular weltschmerz of today’s bright, successful but sad young writers. This is most evident in the collection’s final essay, a long and passionately argued panegyric to David Foster Wallace in which Smith diagnoses the central dilemmas of her own increasingly lost generation. These are dilemmas, she argues, that Henry James, who assumed awareness leads to responsibility, never encountered: “the ubiquity of television, the voraciousness of late capitalism, the triumph of therapeutic discourse and philosophy’s demotion into a branch of linguistics.”

Smith writes with a beguiling mix of assurance and solemnity, borrowing her vocabulary from many intellectual and cultural sources. But a few of her readers may still pause to wonder if the growing irrelevance of academic philosophy is as strong an influence — even on people at university campuses — as the ravages of “late capitalism.” For someone so apparently world-weary, Smith can often appear profoundly unworldly. Writing about a trip to Liberia organized by Oxfam, she wavers distractingly from the arch (“There are such things as third-world products”) to tourist-brochure blandness (“Bong country is beautiful. Lush green forest, a sweet breeze”) to stock atrocity journalism (“A narrow corridor of filth, lined on either side with small dwellings made of trash, mud, scrap metal. Children with distended bellies, rotting food, men breaking rocks”).

Compiling an assortment of details, Smith declines to fit them into a pattern. Her essay called “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” has the shapelessness implied by its title. Smith visibly moves with greater ease through the decipherable world of texts, but here she often gets bogged down in over-interpretation. The work of David Foster Wallace, an estimable writer of undoubtedly great unfulfilled promise, can’t bear the weight of meaning Smith bestows on it, deploying references that range from Zen koans to Noam Chomsky. Lines like “How to be in the world when the world has collapsed into language?” bear too much resemblance to the effusions of an aspirant for a Ph.D. in philosophy.

When writing out of her own memory and experience, Smith can quickly cast a spell: her essay on British comedy, which movingly commemorates her father, is among her best. But her preferred stance as a literary and philosophical insurgent, with its related weakness for rousing manifestos, often yields a disconcerting intellectual and moral imprecision. Far from being a complacent purveyor of a triumphant “white” culture, Edmund Wilson wrote feelingly about the Iroquois and Zuni Indians and other endangered minority cultures. We may all be insects now, but a Muslim insect in England doesn’t lurk in the same hole as a non-Muslim one.

Smith’s broad-brush pronouncements underscore the limitations of the academic theories she often rehearses. Having hybrid identities, not belonging anywhere or indeed belonging everywhere, may have its advantages, but these attributes must still contend with pressing circumstances like the voraciousness of 21st-century capitalism. Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them. The possession of multiple selves and voices doesn’t seem to be helping — and may even be inhibiting — Barack Obama. The victims of the seemingly endless violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan would draw scant comfort from the knowledge that the present occupant of the White House has an ear for different accents and can mimic everyone from a white Harvard nerd to a Ken­yan elder.

Smith’s intellectual ambitions are remarkably consistent with those of the postcolonial writers and academics who have settled into the abstractions of a posh postmodernism. “Changing My Mind” displays many of its virtues: a cosmopolitan suavity and wit that often relieves intellectual ponderousness. Smith’s native intelligence, however, seems so formidable that you can’t help hoping she’ll change her mind yet again.

CHANGING MY MIND

Occasional essays.

By Zadie Smith

306 pp. The Penguin Press. $26.95

Pankaj Mishra is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

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Split into five sections—Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering— Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays—some published here for the first time—reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas. Whether writing on Katharine Hepburn, Kafka, Anna Magnani, or Zora Neale Hurston, she brings deft care to the art of criticism with a style both sympathetic and insightful. Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent, and funny—a gift to readers and writers both.

About the Author

  • Print length 320 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Penguin Canada
  • Publication date Oct. 26 2010
  • Dimensions 13.51 x 2.01 x 20.98 cm
  • ISBN-10 0143017640
  • ISBN-13 978-0143017646
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Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Canada (Oct. 26 2010)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0143017640
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0143017646
  • Item weight ‏ : ‎ 322 g
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 13.51 x 2.01 x 20.98 cm
  • #1,150 in Literary Movements & Periods
  • #1,164 in Literary Essays (Books)
  • #2,929 in Short Story Anthologies

About the author

Zadie smith.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations, and a collection of short stories, Grand Union.

White Teeth won multiple 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. She is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

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In addition to her considerable talents as a novelist, Zadie Smith has been quietly assembling an impressive body of literary and cultural criticism over the past several years. Those pieces have been collected in this volume, a virtuosic demonstration of the workings of a first-class mind expressed in consistently lucid prose. Smith, who divides her time between New York and London, is an acute observer of contemporary culture, possessed also with the intellectual grounding to make her commentaries more than ephemera.

The first section of the volume consists of six scholarly essays on writers like Zora Neale Hurston (one of her early literary inspirations), Nabokov and Barthes, George Eliot, E.M. Forster and Kafka. The most intriguing (and perhaps controversial) piece in this section is one entitled “Two Directions for the Novel,” in which she contrasts the lyrical realism of Joseph O’Neill’s lavishly praised NETHERLAND with her preference for the “constructive deconstruction” of English novelist Tom McCarthy’s experimental REMAINDER.

Smith’s lecture, “Speaking in Tongues,” the highlight of a section entitled “Being,” is a moving meditation delivered only a few weeks after the election of Barack Obama. More than any other essay in the collection, this one puts her dazzling talents on full display. In it, she moves gracefully from the story of shedding the accent of her birth (“Willesden was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle.”) to a discussion of Pygmalion , to an incisive dissection of Obama’s memoir. Along the way, she discourses on such subjects as Shakespeare, the religious wars of 17th-century England and Cary Grant. None of this feels as if it’s calculated to showcase her erudition. Rather, it’s an invigorating display of the breadth of her learning and of her ability to knit together seamlessly elements of culture both high and low.

A close study of Smith’s generous essay “That Crafty Feeling” (a version of a lecture delivered to Columbia creative writing students) will repay aspiring writers many times over. In it, she lays down 10 genial guidelines about the writing craft, of which this terse admonition about literary influences is but one example: “Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write…Other people’s words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you’re going.”

The three essays collected under the heading “Feeling” are the most poignant in the book. Smith begins with a description of a family Christmas around 1980 (she was six or so at the time), and then in “Accidental Hero” recounts her father Harvey’s wartime memories, including his participation in D-Day (“So much experience that should be parceled out, tenderly, over years, came to my father that day, concertinaed into twenty-four hours.”) and concludes with “Dead Man Laughing,” a sly meditation that winds its way effortlessly from the gentle fun she pokes at her father’s sense of humor (he loved “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers”) to a professional critique of the art of comedy.

Smith’s collection winds up with a lengthy reconsideration of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection, BRIEF LIVES OF HIDEOUS MEN. In the same vein as the literary criticism that leads off the volume, it’s a discussion that will challenge the general reader, but it’s an unsurpassed introduction to Wallace’s work and an exceptionally generous tribute to a departed colleague.

The only section of CHANGING MY MIND that mildly disappoints is “Seeing.” Focusing on the movies, Smith offers an appreciation of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, a profile of the Italian actress Anna Magnani and a series of vignettes from Oscar weekend 2006. The longest piece in this section collects Smith’s reviews of mainstream films that year. The problem with this relatively lengthy chunk of the book is that a good many of the films Smith critiques (such as the ghastly Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Date Movie ) are best forgotten and, in any event, unworthy of her talents.

In a recent essay in the Guardian, Zadie Smith explains that something she calls “novel nausea” inspired her to turn to the essay form. “But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can,” she concludes. “Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined.” It’s reassuring to know that a gifted writer of fiction now has recharged her creative batteries, but these elegant and thoughtful essays can only inspire the hope that she’ll return with more soon.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( [email protected] ) on December 26, 2010

changing my mind occasional essays

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2010
  • Genres: Criticism , Essays , Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117955
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117957

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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Paperback – 30 Jun. 2011

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A far-ranging, invigorating and irrepressible collection of essays on literature, cinema, art - and everything in between - from the MAN BOOKER PRIZE- and WOMEN'S PRIZE-SHORTLISTED author of Feel Free and Swing Time 'Alarmingly good' Metro 'Striding with open hearted zest and eloquence between fiction (from EM Forster to David Foster Wallace) and travel, movies and comedy, family and community in a self-portrait that charts the evolution of a formidable talent' Independent 'Supremely good. Smith writes with such infectious zeal and engaging accessibility that it makes you want to turn up at her house and demand tutoring' Dazed 'Brilliant' Vogue

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  • Print length 320 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Penguin
  • Publication date 30 Jun. 2011
  • Dimensions 12.9 x 1.9 x 19.8 cm
  • ISBN-10 9780141019468
  • ISBN-13 978-0141019468
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  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ 0141019468
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin; 1st edition (30 Jun. 2011)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9780141019468
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0141019468
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 12.9 x 1.9 x 19.8 cm
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About the author

Zadie smith.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations, and a collection of short stories, Grand Union.

White Teeth won multiple 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. She is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

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Author Interviews

In essays, author zadie smith reveals her process.

changing my mind occasional essays

Zadie Smith teaches fiction at Columbia University School of the Arts. Roderick Field hide caption

Zadie Smith teaches fiction at Columbia University School of the Arts.

Author Zadie Smith admits that early literary success is not always a blessing. She was 25 when she published her first novel, the widely praised White Teeth . Since then, she has written two other novels — On Beauty and The Autograph Man — but she has also experimented with literary criticism, movie reviews and political writing.

Now, she has compiled some of that work in the collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays .

Throughout the essays, Smith reveals a bit about her writing process. She reveals how she writes — and the people and literary works that have influenced her.

Smith says she spends 80 percent of her efforts on the first 50 or 60 pages of a book — and the rest comes "pretty quickly." She says she does that to get the tone — the perspective — the way she wants it.

Book Review

Reviewer Heller McAlpin calls Zadie Smith's essays about her father the "real payoff" of Changing My Mind . Read The Review.

"It's the hope that you might write something different — and then often the realization that you're writing something the same," Smith tells NPR's Michele Norris. "The beginning is so painful, the end is torturous, but in the middle you're writing a lot of words per day. You feel very productive, and you get carried away."

While she gets carried away midbook, Smith admits that she doesn't write every day.

"I wish I did more than anything, and I wish I had the compulsion," she says. "But in my defense, I think that novels should feel very necessary to the people who write them. I just realized quite early on that I'm not going to be the type who can write a novel every two years. I think you need to feel an urgency about the act. Otherwise, when you read it, you feel no urgency, either. So I don't write unless I really feel I need to, and that's a luxury."

Two of Smith's essays focus on her father, who died in 2006. Smith says she wrote about her father as a way to mourn him. (Read one of the essays, " Dead Man Laughing ," below)

"I wouldn't write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it's a very violent thing to do to another person," she says. "And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.

"With my father, writing about him was genuinely an act of mourning. I didn't realize I'd be the person who used my writing in that way. I suppose I often think of my writing as quite impersonal. But it turned out, when my father died, writing was exactly what I wanted to do."

Smith says her father was difficult to pin down, and she wanted to make him "more solid."

"I think maybe with the rest of my family, they're much larger than life. My father was a little bit more elusive," she says. But "it's also a betrayal once you write about someone who's died: What remains is what you've written. And it begins to replace your memories the way that photographs replace real things. So I think it's a dangerous act. I don't think I'd ever write a full memoir for that reason — it seems to over-slick reality with something else."

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Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

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changing my mind occasional essays

Zadie Smith

Much like a phantom limb can plague the amputee, a Zadie Smith essay not included in this collection haunted my reading of Changing My Mind . Not in a spooky way, but an itchy way.

Fail Better , published in the Guardian in January, 2007, was an essay about, among other things, what makes for great fiction, the value of individuality über alles and the "duty" of both the writer and the reader. And it caused not a little consternation in people I knew who were working toward being published writers, mainly because of Smith pointing out that writing well is not simply a matter of skill and craft, but "of character" (of the writer) and of "authenticity" (ditto).

Oh, and there was also her contention that too many books today look like literature, smell like literature and are rewarded as literature, but are in fact sad simulacrums of the real thing.

Another frequent complaint was that she was "showing off." But Zadie, being Zadie, can't help tap dancing on the ceiling with cartoon mice.

Smith writes with preternatural wisdom (the first of her three novels, the fat, happy and fiercely intelligent White Teeth , was published in 2000 when she was just 25) and exuberance. (If you ever want to witness a feeding frenzy, just let a bunch of creative-writing students loose on a sentence like this [a sentence I happen to like a great deal] "Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.")

In all fairness, there were students of mine who did relish Fail Better (whose title, unacknowledged by Smith, comes from Beckett's Worstward Ho .) "The most succulent byproduct of this refreshing read is that she invites me to (re)welcome my self … back into my own work," one of them wrote. "Like she's gardening in her pyjamas, mud on forehead, saying, 'What the hell are you doing trying to do? Be unobtrusive? Kid, you're already in your fiction, whether you like it or not. So knock yourself out. Swing from the rafters …'")

Smith is an at-times-brilliant writer who does swing from the rafters. Not every novel has been successful - The Autograph Man was a bit of a mess, but a mess with frisson and verve. Although her fictional reach can exceed her grasp, her books take big bites of the world in its chaotic, multiracial, class-ridden, pop-culture-soaked glory.

In Changing My Mind , Smith's trademark insouciance (an epigraph in The Autograph Man identified Walter Benjamin as "the popular wise guy") has been tamped down, but the irreverent wit is on display, alongside a penetrating sonar-depth understanding of the fictional enterprise. Shuffle on over, James Wood, there's a new maestro of the literary essay in town.

Smith reads with both "brain and spine," as one of her heroes, Nabokov, exhorted his students to, and the results here are often thrilling. The final 40-page essay, a remembrance of the late David Foster Wallace and his "difficult gifts," focusing on his 1999 fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men , is a singular achievement in a year that has been filled with tributes to DFW's genius. Smith interrogates and celebrates the meaning and methodology of the man who was her "favourite living writer" with a lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity that Italo Calvino himself would have found pleasing.

She makes a case for Wallace's gift for turning stories outward, "towards us. It's our character that's being investigated. … What's recursive about Wallace's short stories is not Wallace's narrative voice but the way these stories run , like verbal versions of mathematical procedures, in which at least one of the steps of the procedure involves rerunning the whole procedure. And it's we who run them. Wallace places us inside the process of recursion, and this is why reading him is so often emotionally and intellectually exhausting."

What follows is a virtuosic parsing of DFW's " real innovation," the "virtuosic use of the recursive sentence, a weird and wonderful beast that needs quoting at length to be appreciated." And needless to say, that left this sentence nerd in near ecstasy.

The essay is also studded with generous quotations from Wallace himself, taken from interviews. For Smith - a British, biracial, movie-loving, comedy nerd - the author is so not dead, as another essay, Rereading Barthes and Nabokov , makes clear. Like many students, Smith fell for the "new" French criticism (no longer new even then) in university. But, a lifelong "Nabokov nerd," she has changed her mind, perhaps because of "a vocational need to believe in Pnin 's author's vision of total control." Still, she gives Barthes his due: "Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes?"

Each of Smith's literary essays here is both a conversation and debate with herself and with the reader, whether it's her 14-year-old self versus her adult self reading and rereading Zora Neale Hurston, or making the case for E.M. Forster against those who view him as a middling, middle-class novelist (Smith's latest novel, On Beauty , is a homage to Howards End ), or positing that if George Eliot were writing today, she might be Mary Gaitskill or A.L. Kennedy, or on whither literary realism, the "Balzac-Flaubert model."

Smith, who herself writes in the tradition, albeit in a postmodern manner, asks, "Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us the most?"

Not all the essays in Changing My Mind are about books (there are strong pieces on actresses Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Anna Magnani; Speaking in Tongues , an inspiring riff on language, biracial realities and her hopes for Barack Obama that began life as a lecture at the New York Public Library; more than a dozen newspaper movie reviews, although entertaining, mainly ephemera; three personal essays; and one complete misfire - a dry account of a week in Liberia in which Smith's characteristic confidence in her subject matter deserts her. It's the literary essays, though, that are the brains and spine of the book.

Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner tries to fail better daily and is the editor of the upcoming collection Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow.

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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Essays

Zadie smith, the universal writer: techniques in three essays anonymous 11th grade, changing my mind: occasional essays.

In her essays “That Crafty Feeling,” “F. Kafka, Everyman,” and “The Rise of the Essay,” Zadie Smith writes about the universal experience of writing using her own personal experience as the standard writing experience. Smith completely blends...

Plato’s and Smith’s Differing Epistemologies: Assessing "Phaedrus" and "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov" Amanda Abere College

To figure out the nature of knowledge, one must ask what it means to know, or fail to know something. This involves understanding what knowledge is, and determining cases in which one knows something, and cases in which one does not know...

changing my mind occasional essays

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    Changing My Mind : Occasional Essays by Smith, Zadie, author. Publication date 2010 Topics English essays, English literature -- History ... English. xii, 306 pages ; 22 cm Zadie Smith offers a collection of essays penned between 1999 and 2009 Includes index and bibliographical references Notable Book of the Year, The New York Times Book Review ...

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    Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time; as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia; three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations; a…. | 5-1/2 x 8-7/16| ISBN 9780143117957. "Smith writes with a beguiling mix of assurance and solemnity, borrowing her ...

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    Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays ? some published here for the first time ? reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas.

  12. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

    A sparkling collection of Zadie Smith's nonfiction over the past decade. Zadie Smith brings to her essays all of the curiosity, intellectual rigor, and sharp humor that have attracted so many readers to her fiction, and the result is a collection that is nothing short of extraordinary. Split into four sections—"Reading," "Being," "Seeing," and "Feeling"—Changing My Mind invites readers to ...

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    This engaging collection of essays—some published here for the first time—reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas.

  15. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

    In a recent essay in the Guardian, Zadie Smith explains that something she calls "novel nausea" inspired her to turn to the essay form. "But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can," she concludes. "Writing essays on ...

  16. Changing My Mind Quotes by Zadie Smith

    Open Preview. Changing My Mind Quotes Showing 1-30 of 49. "Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.". ― Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. 117 likes.

  17. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

    Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations, and a collection of short stories, Grand Union. White Teeth won multiple awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award ...

  18. In Essays, Author Zadie Smith Reveals Her Process : NPR

    In the new collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, author Zadie Smith explores her writing process and the people who have influenced her. Smith tells NPR she doesn't write every day ...

  19. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Summary

    Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Summary These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful for their contributions and encourage you to make your own. Written by Timothy Sexton "Their Eyes were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?"

  20. Changing my mind : occasional essays : Smith, Zadie : Free Download

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  21. Changing my mind : occasional essays

    A volume of essays is comprised of top-selected pieces from the past decade and considers a broad range of topics organized under such main categories as "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," and "Feeling." ... Changing my mind : occasional essays . 726 reviews. Author: Zadie Smith.

  22. Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

    Much like a phantom limb can plague the amputee, a Zadie Smith essay not included in this collection haunted my reading of Changing My Mind. Not in a spooky way, but an itchy way. Fail Better ...

  23. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Essays

    Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Zadie Smith Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by ...