Book-a-week, week 12

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith.

The “-a-week” modifier is more than a bit of a misnomer here… this book took me solidly four weeks to finish, maybe more. And I had to give it more time than I would have liked yesterday (I was suffering a killer headache) in order to finish before it expired.

Did I used to read literary criticism in college? Did I used to understand it? I mean, I fancy myself a bit of an intellectual, though perhaps not a literary snob. But man, the first section of this book (containing the essays “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What does soulful mean?,” “E.M. Forster, Middle Manager,” “Middlemarch and Everybody,” “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” “F. Kafka, Everyman,” and “Two Directions for the Novel”) was some rough going for me.

And much of it wasn’t particularly enjoyable, frankly. Zadie Smith still has an amazing way with language, but I really didn’t want to know exactly how much I would despise Nabokov in real life. Smith makes him sound like not just a misogynist, but also an insufferable prick. And now any enjoyment I have had of his works is tainted, and I probably will never read him again. I know, I know. One shouldn’t mix up the artist and his art… despising the one does not mean you cannot appreciate the other. But I only have so much time to spend on consuming literature / pop culture / what-have-you. Why would I spend my time and emotional energy on the work of someone I despise? I also don’t see Tom Cruise movies. Like, ever. Not even “Edge of Tomorrow” which sounded kind of good. Because… insufferable prick.

I don’t have to like the person who wrote the book or made the movie or whatever. But if my distaste for the artist is so profound that it’s front-and-center in my brain while I’m reading / watching / what-have-you… well, it’s a distraction and I don’t really enjoy the art in that case. That’s where I’m at now with Nabokov. Thanks, Zadie Smith!

There were some lovely passages in these essays, though… things I want to remember:

On the characters in E.M. Forster’s novels, “Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to ‘know what they like’ and ‘have the courage of their convictions,’ though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear.”

On black / gay / other pride, “I find it impossible to experience either pride or shame over accidents of genetics in which I had no active part.” I feel this way, also, about patriotism. Didn’t someone say that patriotism means thinking a country is great simply because you were born there? Yeah, I just don’t get that.

Oh, look! That patriotism quote? George Bernard Shaw, and quoted by Zadie Smith. It actually goes like this, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”

Her father’s quote about being called up for military service (he had “stormed the beach in Normandy”), “Made me feel a little bit special — and when you’re a teenager, that’s what you want, isn’t it?” (Why can I not get my colleagues to believe this simple fact? They are certain that we can only recruit math majors by convincing them of the future financial benefits of studying math. Dude. 18-year-olds? Not that practical. An email telling them they did well in your class, you are impressed, and have they considered what class to take next? It makes them feel special! And when you’re a teenager, that’s what you want, isn’t it?)

The last is actually a quote of David Foster Wallace, “But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end.” He was talking about writers, but if you replace “metafiction” with “mathematics” then he could be talking about me. I know that I am not one of the brilliant pioneers… I am a crank turner (when I am anything at all). I might feel bad about that, but I just don’t. First, I am not convinced that I couldn’t be one of the brilliant pioneers… I know for a fact that I don’t work as hard at the mathematics part as others do, and I haven’t my whole life. My interest are too varied, and I just don’t care as much. But I still prove cool theorems sometimes, ones that I like and take pleasure in. And they pay me to do it. So whatever… I will turn the crank and spit out pellets of mathematics and be quite pleased with myself. And despite being a little gray person, I am not depressed and suicidal, perhaps because I don’t obsess so much about my own brilliance and how I stack up against the giants. (Too soon?) It’s probably no coincidence that the aforementioned insufferable prick Nabokov was in the first part of the DFW quote… perhaps we idolize our geniuses a bit too much.

I’m glad I read this book of essays, though I’m not entirely sure why I’m glad of it… perhaps I will return to one of Zadie Smith’s novels and see if it’s just her author’s voice that kept me going. But next up will be something much (much much much) lighter.

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