When I studied abroad in London as an undergrad, I sat at an Indian restaurant eating pappadam while reading White Teeth, and my heart exploded. It was a moment among only a handful of such moments in my life. The world was rebuilt in front of me. I would stand on the corner of a street and observe people with a kind of fascination and affection normally prompted by drugs. I have loved Zadie Smith’s writing for years. I have loved Zadie Smith herself ever since I saw her read in Cambridge in 2003, at which point I developed a bit of a crush. I never understood why The Autograph Man wasn’t better received. When I had the chance to teach a course on contemporary black literature, we read NW alongside Fruitvale Station and the combination of the two narratives had me grieving the deaths of the black protagonists so acutely, I was reduced to crawling across the floor of my apartment.
That being said, it took me a full 400 pages to get into her new essay collection, Feel Free. And by “get into,” what I mean is that for the most part I did not feel any degree of identification with the author. Even though I too am a biracial essayist who loves museums and books and traveling with my father.
“We’re submerged, all of us.” This is how Zadie Smith begins her short story, ‘The Lazy River,’ and this is how we’re made to feel throughout it. Submerged in her words, trapped in the narrative. She brings us into her world on the page and spits us out into a reality with the realization that the one we live in is not much different from the one she’s constructed.
Smith said in an interview with The New Yorker that ‘The Lazy River,’ published last December, is meant to represent the feelings of shame and despair she felt during 2017. I read it for the first time in the car while home for the holidays. My mom drove us through the mountains, and I read the story out loud as the pine trees flew by and small, wet snowflakes smacked the windshield. The year was coming to a close and as I read, I felt what Smith wanted me to feel: despair.
One of the world’s great readers, whose finest work has been about the writing of others, Manguel faced his own worst nightmare three years ago when – defeated by “sordid” French bureaucracy – he and his partner left the medieval village presbytery that had been their home for the last 15 years for a tiny flat in Manhattan. That meant packing up his precious library of 35,000 books in the knowledge that he might never see them all together again. “Packing,” he writes, “is an exercise in oblivion. It is like playing a film backwards, consigning visible narratives and methodological reality to the regions of the distant and unseen, a voluntary forgetting.”
This nightmare, like Stevenson’s, has produced a book – a slim, fragmentary meditation on the power of reading and the importance of libraries. The form Manguel has chosen is an essay interrupted by 10 “digressions”, which ramble anecdotally across time and space. In one, he recalls the syphilitic knight Pedro de Mendoza, who sailed to South America in 1536 under instructions from the emperor Charles I to set up a Spanish colony, taking with him not only 13 ships and 2,000 men, but “seven volumes of medium size bound in black leather” which were to become the continent’s first library.
First, a note on the son-daughter disparity: Sons often get more leeway and more freedom. The sooner you accept this, the less time you will waste dwelling on it. Don’t get mad; observe. Observe how the brother does it. Observe that he doesn’t apologize for his choices. Observe his confidence — he knows he holds power, and he doesn’t feel guilty about it.