Of all the vague terms that journalists love to apply to mostly unwilling celebrities, one of the slipperiest is "public intellectual." It's hard to define, but with apologies to Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it. To be one, you have to be smart about more than one thing, you have to be able to translate academic jargon into something approaching English, and most importantly, you can never define yourself as one.
Zadie Smith, the novelist and author of the brilliant new essay collection Feel Free, would seem to qualify, except for one important thing: She is English, and thus prone to the kind of almost fatal embarrassment that all Britons feel when they're even vaguely complimented. So let's let her off the hook, and just say this: Her new book is lively, intelligent and frequently hilarious, and proves that she's one of the brightest minds in English literature today.
Like her previous collection, Changing My Mind, Smith's latest book is impressively wide-ranging. She considers Brexit and Key & Peele, J.G. Ballard and Jay-Z, Billie Holiday and Justin Bieber. Refreshingly, she does it all without the kind of knowing wink that some cultural observers can't resist; if she believes there's a clear-cut dichotomy between so-called "high" and "low" culture, she doesn't let on.
In one of the book's first essays, "On Optimism and Despair," Smith lets her readers know that they won't find fashionable pessimism in the pages to come. "I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. ... Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive."
It's no accident she chose to emphasize the word "reimagined." Smith believes that fiction — that any kind of art, really — still has the power to shape our worlds. And she engages with a variety of art forms with an admirable open-mindedness; eight years after her previous collection, she's still willing to change her mind. In an essay about Joni Mitchell, she describes beautifully how she became a fan despite an unpleasant experience with the singer's music during a road trip ("I started stabbing at the dashboard, trying to find the button that makes things stop."
Reading Feel Free is a lot like hanging out with a friend who's just as at home in a museum as she is binge-watching a sitcom. She engages artists on their own terms; she's opinionated, but not judgmental. And she manages to breathe new life into well-worn topics: in a review of The Social Network that doubles as a reflection on Facebook, she manages to be both funny (Justin Timberlake "sure plays a great schmuck") and deadly accurate ("It's the Wild West of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul").
She's also extremely charming, writing with a humility and self-effacement that's remarkable even for a Brit. At one point, she worries that she hasn't spent enough time appreciating the fine arts: "I should be loving sculpture! But I have not gone deeply into sculpture. Instead, having been utterly insensitive to sculpture, I fill the time that might have been usefully devoted to sculpture with things like drinking and staring into space."
Every one of the essays in Feel Free is marked with Smith's generosity of spirit and intellect. In one essay, she reflects beautifully on Balthasar Denner's Alte Frau; not long after, she's drawing a comparison between Justin Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber. ("I know, I know," she allows.) The odds of an essay like that actually working are astronomically long; somehow, she pulls it off: "As if only by destroying the perfect love object of our creation can he get back to that half-forgotten, human person, who looked into the gaping maw of YouTube, all those years ago, and sang his little heart out." It takes a special kind of genius — an open-minded, unpretentious one — to find that kind of beauty in the kid that brought the world "Where Are Ü Now."
There's not an essay in Feel Free that's less than engrossing. Sure, Smith is extremely intelligent, but smart authors are a dime a dozen: More importantly, she's an elegant writer, original, big-hearted and enthusiastic. Spend more time engaging with whatever art you love, she seems to be saying, and less time worrying about what you're supposed to like. Or as she puts it: "Between propriety and joy choose joy."