Zadie Smith on the Essential Services of Independent Bookstores

Zadie Smith illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

In her review of Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa,’ Zadie Smith first discusses taking her children to see The Polar Express 4-D Experience at the Central Park Zoo. When writing about Brexit, she first writes about being taken aback by a fence that’s been put up around the primary school in her neighborhood. Her way of writing about Justin Bieber first requires writing about her fantasies about Justin Bieber. No, they’re not sexual fantasies. At least, she doesn’t think they are.

This is all to say that the clarity and honesty that drives the prose and shimmers through the Zadie Smith essays collected in the new book Feel Free comes from a direct acknowledgment of what’s going on. She, Zadie Smith, is going to tell you what she thinks about something. But first, she’s going to tell you why she’s thinking about it, or what she was doing as she was thinking about it, or what thing she used to think about, which has shifted now that she’s thinking about this new thing. To read Smith’s nonfiction is to read her figuring out how to think about something.

Zadie Smith Main Small/Nathan Gelgud

Smith’s last collection was called Changing My Mind, and it’s hard to imagine someone who can change her mind with such fluidity, and make it a pleasure to read.  She’s a master of coming at a topic, taking a turn, switching gears, and then figuring something out right in front of you, maybe even making you think you figured it out with her.

It makes sense, then, to open Feel Free with an essay full of personal anecdotes, an impassioned plea on behalf of libraries and bookstores. As someone whose work has been populating the shelves of such locations for almost two decades, Smith is quick to point out her debt to them. And in the essay “North West London Blues,” she pays specific tribute to the Willesden Bookshop and its proprietor Helen, who Smith calls an “essential local person,” because of her talent for giving people what they didn’t know they wanted. Smith has discovered and bought books at Helen’s shop that she would not have known she desired had Helen not pointed them out or had them on her shelves.

As the rest of the essays in Feel Free demonstrate, Smith is a writer whose thought process is lively, shifting, and constantly evolving. But that openness doesn’t go far if there aren’t ideas out there to be admitted, and in the first essay she pays tribute to the people who make sure there’s always something to tune in.