Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith
Although British writer Zadie Smith is better known as a novelist, she’s also got some formidable chops when it comes to putting together compelling argumentative prose. Smith is, first and foremost, a writer, so a few of the essays contained in this collection deal with the work or personalities of other writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka; others deal with related subjects, such as the craft of writing or the future direction of fiction. But one of the things that make this book more than a typical collection of ruminations is its depth: Smith treats the personal as well as the public (for example, the death of her father and his love of some very peculiar comedic television). In one of the best pieces in the collection (at least in the humble opinion of your reporter), Smith traces the rise of US President Barack Obama and discusses how his upbringing in a variety of diverse environments allowed him to feel comfortable before a broad range of audiences, and how this versatility had been interpreted by the political right in the United States as “inauthentic.”
My partner teaches college writing, and after reading this book, I recommended that she consider it as a text for one of her undergraduate survey courses, both because of its variety and its ability to provoke conversation. If you trace the history of the word essay to its Greek root, you’ll note that it means “to attempt.” A good essay attempts many things and chief among them is that it encourages the reader (and the writer) to rigorously question their own positions on issues. On this count, we owe Smith a debt of gratitude for making our minds stronger, more supple and more generous things.