Changing my mind: occasional essays



ISB(abe)N Discussion Questions #3:

1.) "Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays" by Zadie Smith has been praised for its brainy approach to literary criticism. Smith exercises a profound understanding of both language and the role of literature in society. When reading this collection of essays, what did Smith prompt you to consider about the role of critical reading/understanding in your everyday life?

2.) Did any essays stand out to you in particular? If so, which one(s)?

3.) Smith criticizes multiple writers throughout the book (for example: Kafka, E. M. Forster, David Foster Wallace). What did you think about the writers she chose to critique and the ways in which she chose to critique them?

4.) Smith explores her own thoughts (at times, negative) on her own writing, illustrating the relationship between a creator and his/her/their craft. What did you take away from these musings?

5.) Smith regularly visits the dynamics between authenticity and identity when critiquing authors—mainly how a writer's relationship to themselves impacts the literature they leave with the world. What did you think about the conclusions she drew on this topic?

6.) "Smith’s broad-brush pronouncements underscore the limitations of the academic theories she often rehearses. Having hybrid identities, not belonging anywhere or indeed belonging everywhere, may have its advantages, but these attributes must still contend with pressing circumstances like the voraciousness of 21st-century capitalism. Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them. The possession of multiple selves and voices doesn’t seem to be helping — and may even be inhibiting — Barack Obama. The victims of the seemingly endless violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan would draw scant comfort from the knowledge that the present occupant of the White House has an ear for different accents and can mimic everyone from a white Harvard nerd to a Ken­yan elder.

Smith’s intellectual ambitions are remarkably consistent with those of the postcolonial writers and academics who have settled into the abstractions of a posh postmodernism. “Changing My Mind” displays many of its virtues: a cosmopolitan suavity and wit that often relieves intellectual ponderousness. Smith’s native intelligence, however, seems so formidable that you can’t help hoping she’ll change her mind yet again." — Pankraj Mishra, The New York Times

Do you agree or disagree? Discuss.

7.) In the essays on her father, Smith reveals a softer, less academic version of herself and her musings. Did you find this section of the book compelling/relatable? Why or why not?

8.)"Love enables knowledge, love is a kind of knowledge." — Smith

Let's explore the accessibility of literature, like Zadie Smith's. What role does intellectual critique play in the betterment and growth of our society? What areas does it neglect?