It turns out that I get on much better with Zadie Smith’s non-fiction than with her novels. Feel Free is a collection of essays on a smorgasbord of subjects, ranging from Facebook to jazz. I found that reading it was like having a series of conversations with a particularly wise and thoughtful friend – these are essays that go beyond the starkly drawn lines of the newspaper opinion piece and into analysis and insight. Here’s Smith on what she might tell her granddaughter about why we didn’t do more about climate change:
So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes–and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.
In particular, I enjoyed her essay on Facebook (via Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network), in which she contends that the social media platform, in its limited conception of what meaningful social engagement looks like, traps us all in the highly particular worldview of its egotistical founder; and her piece on defending public libraries, in which she notes that the public library is one of the only places left in modern towns where you don’t have to spend money to go in.
Because the topics are all so different, I’m not sure there’s a particular thematic thread I can draw out here. These are opinion pieces, so it’s not as if I agree with everything Smith writes – but they’re also pieces designed to elicit thought, engagement and informed disagreement. In short, I enjoyed the time I spent in the company of Feel Free; there were a couple of points that have become part of my own thinking; and if a lot more public discourse looked like this the world would be a kinder place. But it’s not a book I feel particularly compelled to return to.