Not all books have an express purpose, a raison d’etre, a clear mission statement that guides the reader to exactly why the tome was put onto shelves. Some simply exist to be discovered and enjoyed, or interpreted and debated at length, without directions or assignments for those who leaf through its pages.
Zadie Smith’s Feel Free is not that book.
The celebrated author — on her way to being properly dubbed “prolific” — dropped a hefty 435-page missive on the world last week which, among many other good qualities, will have no chance of being misinterpreted. Smith is more famously known for her novels — largely based in her native London — but Feel Free is an essay collection, split into the categories she’s labeled “In The World” (musings on international issues), “In the Audience” (musings on pop culture), “In the Gallery” (musings on art), “On the Bookshelf” (musings on… duh… books), and “Feel Free” (musings on whatever she damn well pleases).
Chapters cover her immediate post-Brexit reaction, which aimed to make sense of the seemingly extreme choice her fellow Brits made and to provide those who don’t want to understand with a little bit of harsh truth.
They cover the comedy duo of Key & Peele and the latter’s Oscar-nominated movie Get Out, listing, to hilarious effect, what she describes as a compendium of black fears about white folk.
They cover the helplessness felt when traveling to Florence, Italy.
They even cover what might be wrong with Justin Bieber — the answer to that one can be found in the teachings of the philosopher Martin Buber, apparently.
But before one even gets into all that, Smith has a little message for you, an idea about how the purpose of the book might be interpreted. You see, she wrote most of the essays during the Obama years, before a certain presidential candidate swooped in and turned the whole world upside down, making them “the products of a bygone world,” as she puts it. What started off as a book meant to celebrate freedom turned into a book that hopes to help the reader remember that freedom.
“Millions will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics,” she writes in the forward. “You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify. To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays — to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!”
So it’s clear: You should read Feel Free to aid in the resistance. But what of all the other moods? Now that everyone is digging into this essay collection, what are they to read when they’re finished but still pining for Smith’s wisdom? Here’s a guide to using her (other) best titles.
When you’re feeling bad about your relationship: Read ‘On Beauty’
On the one hand, this is a novel about culture, following the members of an interracial family living in a very white university town in Massachusetts. It’s also a novel for anyone who misses that distinctly academic bustle of college life, the smell of old books in the library and the vibrancy of coffee shops filled to the brim and the carefree drunkenness of open mic night.
You’ll meet the matriarch, Kiki, who is trying to come to terms with the reality of her children as (occasionally difficult young adults). You’ll meet Zora, the college student daughter who has singlehandedly taken on the issue of convincing the university to allow inner-city kids to attend class. You’ll meet Jerome, the son who has become a born-again Christian, much to the dismay of his liberal parents.
And, most importantly to these purposes, you’ll meet Howard, the husband/father/professor who turns everything on its head. No spoilers here, but whatever is currently annoying you about your significant other… consider it an entirely minor offense in comparison.
Buy it here.
When you have major wanderlust: Read ‘Swing Time’
This book begins as a story about two childhood friends. They started out as best friends in dance class but circumstances beyond their control — like money, class, and parents — drove them apart. Tracy still lives at home in Northwest London and the unnamed narrator is the personal assistant to a pop star-turned philanthropist. While the heart of the characters stays in England (much like most of Smith’s books), the narrator’s job for the famous Aimee (just Aimee) takes her to New York and a remote West African village, where she is tasked with setting up the singer’s charity.
The story swings back and forth between the modest apartments of their London youth and the current-day insanity that is working in the entertainment industry and the result will drive almost anyone to suddenly Google flights to… just about anywhere.
Buy it here.
When you’re feeling nostalgic for home: Read ‘NW’
Smith’s upbringing is the common thread in all of her novels. While her adult life has been lived in Rome, in the faculty dwellings of NYU, in the many theaters and bookstores where she promotes her work, it’s clear that her childhood in the London council estate left a lasting impression. This book is basically a love letter to the neighborhoods of youth — all of the flaws included.
Four locals and their comings-and-goings in the council make up the plot of NW. It jumps back and forth between their lives, whether it’s a married couple struggling with taking the next step (babies) or a successful lawyer who has moved up to an expensive Victorian townhouse in the neighborhood. It’s one of those books that’s more about what it’s like to be people than what happens to those people.
Buy it here.