“Feel Free,” the collection of essays by Zadie Smith, takes the reader on a journey through a plethora of topics, including politics, rap starts, philosophy, movies, paintings and more.

The title of Zadie’s Smith collection is an invitation, one we often give out to friends: “Feel free.”

Smith manages to talk about even heavy, in-depth subjects with an accessible lightness — like you’re having a conversation with a friend, even if you’re not someone who usually has conversations about Brexit, or the history of Italian art or the eventuality of death.

But then with her wide range of topics, readers are bound to find at least one topic they’ve discussed. Even when Smith touches on something unfamiliar, her description brings enough information that a reader is still able to benefit from her analysis.

She balances the light and the heavy equally well, something exemplified in her very first essay. In it, she describes the market so beautifully you want to be there, and feel as if you are, and then she transitions easily into the topic of council politics.

With this book, I did something I normally hate to do with any type of media -- I read out of order. Generally I believe that book series and TV episodes and, well everything, is presented to us in the way it’s supposed to be, so why would we consume it any other way? But with this collection of essays, and the clear way they were organized, I eventually found - after fighting my own stubbornness - that there was greater enjoyment in jumping ahead, or back, to the topics I was interested in in the moment. Why force yourself to read through a book review if you’re in the mood to hear reflections on life?

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The essay format also lends itself to taking more time to read the book as a whole. It’s not the type of book to plow through, turning the pages as quickly as possible to follow the plot. The book is one readers should take their time with, and give themselves moments after each essay to reflect and take in what Smith is saying. Her words and insights aren’t the type of thing that should be rushed. This book is great to keep out -- on your desk, table, nightstand -- and turn to when you have a moment, like a conversation. Take 20 minutes on the topic, let it linger in your mind and then, when you’re ready, come back for another chat.

-- Rebecca Mariscal

Before reading “Feel Free” I had read a couple of Smith’s essays but never a collection. While reading the book I was quickly struck with the well of knowledge that Smith has and is able to use in her writing. While many essay collections hover around one topic or a theme, Smith does not limit herself to what can be included within the text.

I admit that some of the topics that Smith covers in the collection are new to me (for example, my knowledge of philosophy is limited to an intro class that I took years ago). But Smith’s writing style is not one that condemns a reader for knowing less than she does on a topic. Instead, Smith writes in a way that allows us to learn as we read. For example, Smith talks about the 2015 film “Anomalisa” in the chapter titled “Windows on the Will: Anomalisa.” While the movie and its minutia were new to me, Smith walks through what the movie is, the plot, characters and the meaning that she took from it. Though I still have not seen the film, Smith’s essay allowed me to begin considering the deeper meanings and the importance of the piece.

Essayists rarely write an essay about only one topic. They are encouraged and often expected to weave together two or more topics that may seem unrelated to make an argument or a point that would be difficult to make when focusing on only one story or thought. Smith is a master of taking two things that appear to have nothing in common (for example taking her children to the zoo and the R-rated "Anomalisa") and creating a brilliant piece of writing.

One of my favorites in the collection is “Getting In and Out,” a reflection of the movie “Get Out.” Smith uses Jordan Peele’s debut film to discuss the way that people of color have been viewed for hundreds of years and how now we live in a society that is filled with the appropriation of the cultures and bodies of people of color. Smith writes, “in the liberal circles depicted in Get Out everything that was once reviled — our eyes, our skin, our backsides, our noses, our arms, our legs, our breasts, and of course our hair — is now openly envied and celebrated and aestheticized and deployed in secondary images to sell stuff. ... To be clear, the life of the Black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1962. Her schools are still avoided and her housing is still sub-standard.”

Smith’s collection of essays covers numerous deep and important topics and for that reason it is not an easy read. But I think that its insights and discussions make it work the time that it takes to consume and process the text.

-- Rachel Fergus

October pick

This month, ahead of the November election, we’ll be reading “The Voting Booth” by Brandy Colbert. This book follows the story of teenagers Marva and Duke on their first election. They have different attitudes about their first time voting, but when Duke is told he isn’t registered at his polling place they unite for a common mission — and a daylong adventure.

Reading questions for “The Voting Booth”

  1. Do you remember your first time voting? How did you feel?

  2. Who’s view on Election Day do you relate to more -- Duke's or Marva's? Has it changed since your first time voting?

  3. At the start, we see clearly that these two characters are different people. How do they each impact the other?

  4. This is a young adult romance, but it also tackles deeper issues. What insights does a teenage perspective bring?

  5. Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or why not?