"Feel Free" by Zadie Smith

(Sydney Dauphinais/Emerald)

In order for Zadie Smith to be fully cognizant of the world around her now, she considers what she will explain to her future granddaughter about the cultural evolution that she’s witnessed.

In her newest book, she promises to sagely explain the political turmoil and negligent response to climate change. “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,” Smith says.

In her latest book, a collection of essays called “Feel Free,” Smith poses appreciable, perceptive questions and dilemmas that contain a multitude of cultural apposition. She arranges these essays into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. In them, Smith undertakes discourse on international politics — like the Brexit vote — by bringing an intimate and insightful perspective as a daughter of immigrants, a sister of popular entertainers (her brothers are comedian Doc Brown and rapper Luc Skyz) and a University of Cambridge alumni. She picks apart the thoughtless and transient nature of social media, slamming the internet culture Mark Zuckerberg has fostered. “It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore,” she writes.

“Feel Free” is 400 pages of thought-provoking and engaging cultural criticism, seamlessly interwoven with social and political analysis. Smith embraces and analyzes uncharted gray area. Many of the included works have appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, but were then published by Penguin Books as a collection in 2018.

Smith earned her literary clout with her 2000 novel “White Teeth,” from which she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award. Since this debut, the best-selling author has written several short stories and essays.

Smith’s prose is illuminating and empathetic, beautifully pairing a conversational tone with strikingly fierce intellect. She has the personable charm of David Sedaris — the kind of voice that you can’t help but hear in your head as you read — with the astute observations garnered through a lifetime of avid learning. Her knowledge is wide-ranging and delves into topics like “Key and Peele” in one essay, Justin Bieber in the next and literary criticism a few beats later. Smith’s catalyzing adoration of literature is embedded in many of the essays, whether they be reviews of books, or a more political stance on the dwindling existence of public libraries.

“Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay,” Smith observes.

Her essays are not always captivating, though — quite frankly, the dogmatic nature of Smith’s narrative makes this book easy to put down. Smith relishes in her eclectic artistic preferences and endeavors, slowly dragging these essays on in a stream-of-consciousness style that feels a little stiff. Her appreciation is transparent; when she loves a piece of art, her discourse surrounding it is captivating. When she is less impressed, her criticism loses its soul and reads like homework.  

Aside from being easy to put down, “Feel Free” is a heartfelt intellectual adventure that encourages mindfulness in the world in which we live — the same world that makes Smith one of the most insightful and talented essayists of our time.

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