Zadie Smith’s Intimations


“There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytic, political and comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those—the year isn’t half-way done. What I’ve tried to do is organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year itself has allowed. These are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity.” ~ Zadie Smith

At slightly under 100 pages, I assumed I would read this book in a day. I was wrong. After a couple of essays, or sometimes even just one, I needed to put the book down and give my heart time to settle. These are, indeed, small and short and personal. Almost like reading a still life in the time of COVID. If you’re the type to look at a still life painting and be left uninspired, you may struggle with this book.

One review I read likened these essays to small talk. As someone who hates small talk, I could not disagree more. There’s small talk and then there’s quiet talk about large things. This collection of essays excels at the latter. If you read nothing else, pick up a copy and read “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus.” A small essay with a depth of insight into racism that transcends the coronavirus, even as it likens it to the spread of contempt.

My personal favorite, however, is “Suffering like Mel Gibson”, with its focus on personal pain and undoing and the value of compassion. Something we could a lot more of and not only during the age of Covid-19.

My favorite excerpts

I read a news story concerning a young woman of only seventeen, who had killed herself three weeks into lockdown, because she “couldn’t go out and see her friends.” She was not a nurse, with inadequate PPI and a long commute, arriving at a ward of terrified people, bracing herself for a long day of death. But her suffering, like all suffering, was an absolute in her own mind, and applied itself to her body and mind as if uniquely shaped for her, and she could overcome it and so she died. ~ from “Suffering like Mel Gibson” (pages 34-35)

…what is it like to have a mind on fire at such a moment? Do you feel ever more distant from the world? Or has the world, in its new extremity, finally come to you?
~ from “A Provocation in the Park” (page 72)


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