Review: Feel Free: Essays

Zadie Smith (Swing Time) claims to be a little anxious about whether she is making a fool of herself. "I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist... no MFA... no PhD." It doesn't matter. Her own well-educated and sensitive responses to whatever she observes are enough.

She has an open curiosity about so many things, and writes like a charming and brilliant friend who is dying to confide her ideas and learn what others have to say. There is a sense of excited discovery and potential in these essays, most of them written for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and Harper's. Despite her anxiety, she seems to treasure her own idiosyncratic and sometimes even naïve perspective, not wanting to pre-censor herself too much. Writing sympathetically about John Berger's wish to demystify art, she says: "He urged us to throw aside the school-taught sensations of high culture anxiety and holy awe. They were to be replaced with a fresh and invigorating mix of skepticism and pleasure."

Smith considers movies and books and art, her childhood neighborhood, politics, Facebook, diary writing, death, her parents, Schopenhauer and public libraries. "Dance Lessons for Writers" is a collection of notes for writers on sets of dancers--Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly, Janet Jackson/Madonna/Beyonce, David Byrne/David Bowie. "For me the two forms are close to each other: I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do... I often think I've learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading... lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style."

She interviews Jay-Z, and comedy duo Key and Peele, and she imagines a meeting between Justin Bieber and Martin Buber: "I know, I know. But in my mind these two are destined to meet... by Buber's stringent measure, not only does the Belieber in the signing queue never really meet Justin Bieber, most people rarely--if ever--meet their closest friends, mothers don't always meet their children, and many a husband has never met his wife, though he may sleep next to her every night." Smith is one of the most skillful and enjoyable essayists working today, and there is plenty to discover, enjoy and argue with in these pages. --Sara Catterall

Shelf Talker: This is a substantial and enjoyable collection of recent essays by acclaimed British author Zadie Smith.

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