This will probably be one of the oddest blogs I’ve ever written, but I have decided to post it anyway because the thought behind it will not go away.
About a month ago I borrowed from the library a book of essays recommended by a fellow writer. I don’t normally read Zadie Smith’s fiction, but my friend assured me I would enjoy her nonfiction, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, published by Penguin in 2009. The book arrived by mail from a lending library I belong to, and when I opened it up I at first thought this was just another book. I opened the book at random and had a moment of exhilaration and bliss. There, on the page, beneath my fingers, sat a five-line footnote.
Perhaps you are thinking this is silly, or pretentious, or a waste of time. Perhaps it is. But for me, it was a surprise because I hardly thought I cared about nonfiction anymore beyond the occasional interesting book of pop culture. I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s take on things, but he’s not a scientist or anyone whose opinion I would accept over my own, not without a lot more research. But the discovery of the footnote in Smith’s book brought me back to something I do care about.
The collection of essays is thoughtful and wide ranging, and it shows in the construction of the book, something I had missed without realizing it. This book opened the door to a room I had closed off years ago when I finished graduate school and left teaching (my teaching career was nothing to be excited about). The book has all the working parts of a carefully constructed work: Dedication, Epigram, Table of Contents, Foreword, seventeen essays distributed by theme in five parts, with footnotes as necessary, Acknowledgments (yes, at the back of the book), and an index. Do you have any idea how rare an index is these days?
A book with footnotes, index, along with the work is a body to be enjoyed on many levels. The footnotes answer those moments of curiosity that can’t be explored well in the main text but yet call out to be considered, or provide additional information that enhances our understanding of the main point, or tells us the author has a sense of humor, a personality sometimes more playful or thoughtful or something not fully in accord with the tone of the main text.
At this point I might have concluded that the discovery of a well-put-together book was enough joy for one day, and left the book on the table to be read at a later date. But I delved in at once, reading the first essay. (I am methodical, and almost put that aside in a footnote, but here it is, casually dropped in.)
The first essay rewarded me with another pleasure—the discussion of a word, in this case soulful, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Smith discusses her first encounter with this book, and growing into over the years. Her experience reflects several I had at that age, fourteen, when my mother offered books for me to read and I would have nothing to do with them. I had my own choices at that age.
I haven’t finished the collection yet, and when I spoke with the librarian she said, “Don’t feel you have to get to it in a hurry. This is an eight-week book.” Another moment of bliss at all that generosity. That sounds like a long time, and to merely read pages, perhaps it is. But to enjoy every aspect of this book I know I’ll want more time. I plan to renew.