There’s only one way to read a “book”….right? Watch below!
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I work in marketing. I enjoy it, but it’s not exactly what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. In fact, there are often times when I’m stricken, at my desk, with a paralyzing fear that I’ve somehow become one of those people. You know, those people who talk about the grand dreams they once had for themselves but are now living out something disappointingly opposite? It’s been a fear since I was a young girl, to be given all this life and somehow waste it on something I never intended to do. I fear that the dreams I have for myself and my life will somehow become a shell of a memory and I, too, will be speaking about what I once hoped for. I’m afraid that I’ll become like the narrator of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, the no-name brown girl who deffered her dreams and life for the sake of managing someone else’s.
Swing Time is described as “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.” It’s a novel wide in scope touching so many bases, but underneath the plethora of themes, tangents, and subplots, what I found most compelling is Smith’s exploration of dreams, success, and the affect time has on both.
We meet the unnamed protagonist and her friend, Tracey, when they are ten years old. Both girls are joining Miss. Isabel’s dance class, both are brown, and both have a deep love for dance. These three things become the building blocks upon which a shaky friendship is built. Though they both are mixed-race, live in estates, and have a passion for dancing, they come from two different worlds. The unnamed friend’s parents are “reversed” in their pairing; the father is white and the mother is a Jamaican feminist with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and mobility. Tracey’s world is the inverse; her Jamaican father is frequently absent and her white mother has an insatiable love for musicals and Michael Jackson.
It’s these two worlds that are always threatening the girls’ friendship. Where the unnamed protagonist’s mother wants her to steer clear of Tracey, the unnamed girl only grows more infatuated with Tracey’s “freedom,” charm, and talent. But despite their opposing worlds (read: mothers), the two girls hold onto their love and dream of dancing until that singular dream is split into two roads: one which the talented Tracey travels confidently toward and the other which the flat-footed—thus, ill-fitted for dance—unnamed protagonist painfully avoids. This divergence of paths is not singularly the physical mechanics making one girl best suited for dance over the other; while Tracey’s mother supports her daughter auditioning and attending the full-time dance school, the unnamed protagonist’s mother forbids her daughter, instead, demanding that she focus on the only important thing in life, which are the things that can be written down. This mother’s dreams of intelligence, dreams of choices, dreams of opportunity for her daughter—the opportunity to disrupt the cycle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, and illiteracy—overshadows whatever dream the daughter has of dancing. We continue to watch this, however inadvertent, deferment of a dream dry up in the girl’s heart festering a rebellion, a bitterness, a jealousy instead.
Swing Time is Smith’s usual epic of ideas and observations about race, gender, class, family, identity, and London. We follow the unnamed protagonist from London to New York to West Africa and learn of globalization, white privilege, matriarchal societies, and–of course–dance. And while readers are required to do their usual sifting through long-winded prose, and some anti-climatic dramas, continuing forth leads to the heart of the story: time, dreams, success, and how the former informs everything.
Ten plus years since meeting Tracey, and developing that dream of dancing, the unnamed protagonist has chosen a shadow of a life where she is a single blade on the propeller of someone else’s dream. She lives in the enclaves of someone else’s life, reducing her own purpose to making someone else’s dreams possible. Her entire reason for being in West Africa is lay down the blueprint and monitor the success of someone else’s vision. It’s an act, a relationship that is no different from the one the unnamed protagonist engaged with Tracey and her own mother. She is consistently surrounded by headstrong women with desires that cannot be extinguished by any outside influences. They railroad the world, and people like the unnamed protagonist, with their tenacious pursuit of their vision. The success of the unnamed protagonist’s relationship with these women is the deferment of her own dreams. And she does so, willingly, exchanging her own happiness for the envy of others living theirs and relishing at the joy of any one’s failure, specifically Tracey’s.
Through traveling their respective roads, Tracey and the unnamed protagonist again become paralleled as adults when each looks upon the other at Tracey’s dining room table only to find that neither are who they imagined themselves to be. Amidst that air of unspoken tension and pain is the question of success: which woman was successful, which one beat the odds…the b-list dancer who never left the estates or the no-name assistant forced to return? Were they both doomed to end up here despite whatever path they jumped on in hopes of escaping? Tracey doesn’t necessarily become the biggest star in the dance world, but is it better than spending half one’s life as the stagehand to someone else’s? Such is the same with the protagonist’s mother; she may not have been able to save the world, and her people, in the way that she thought she could, but nonetheless she tried. We are not in control of where our dreams lead us, but the bravery and the triumph is not in the destination but the journey.
But we’ve heard their stories before. We’ve read of the people who fight against the odds to make their dreams come true. We’ve seen the Traceys in Marilyn, Dorothy, and even Nella Larsen’s Clare Kendry. Very rarely do we hear from the other side–the Ethels, the Irenes, the Cindy Lou’s–the people running the well oiled machine of dreams, and the people who get hurt at the expense of the dream chasers. The unnamed protagonist gives us a thorough glimpse in Swing Time, a novel that I can only think of as an extension of Langston Hughes’ question of what happens to a deferred dream:
I know we live in a McDonaldized world where efficiency and calculability are key, but there still remains some things best done slowly–like reading.
We not only read for entertainment and escape, but to educate ourselves about specific topics and to gain an overall higher level of consciousness.
It is quite difficult for one to achieve such a heighten conscience if one speeds through texts. Close reading, defined as “reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension,” is the agent imperative to getting the absolute most out a text. Reading is so much more than simply glancing at the words on the page; it is a mixture of interpreting and visualizing the written word to ultimately arrive at your own ideas and criticisms.
If you are completely McDonaldized to the point where you can’t even conceptualize how to do such a thing, here are four ways to become a close-reader:
Annotation is an art-form, but unlike most other art-forms it isn’t something you have to be born with.
It is simply the act of underlining, circling, and writing in the margins of the text. Now, this doesn’t mean take your pen to town all over the book. Annotating requires your critical mind–highlight a beautiful prose, underline a symbol/theme/phrase that continues throughout the book, jot down a particular thought or connection to something you just read.
Here is an example of light annotation I’ve done in my Jane Eyre novel that I’ve read about twenty-thousand times:
Here’s an example of a lightly annotated page of my copy of Zadie Smith’s, White Teeth, where I used post-it notes to mark an impressive theme in that passage:
Here’s an example of two heavily annotated pages of my same copy of Jane Eyre:
Your book doesn’t have to be so marked that you can’t even read the original text–you are looking for what jumps out at you as important.
In the McDonaldized way of living we want things one-and-done. No one has time to re-do, re-view, re-vise. Unfortunately, you’ll never truly grasp the beauty or complexity of any written work if you don’t re-read.
If you don’t believe me, Valdimir Nabokove once said:
It is impossible to catch everything the first time you read a text or a sentence. Initially you are trying to grasp the plot of the story–what’s happening and to whom. It isn’t until you re-read that you can begin to answer the question of why and how things take place. I often will get so caught up in the beauty of the syntax of language that I’ll reach the period and have no idea what I just read, as laborious as it may be I trek my eyes and my brain right back to the beginning of the sentence and read again for clarity.
When you’re re-reading you are looking to answer critical questions that arose after the first or second time of reading, during this process you are bound to catch something you missed before, which is what makes reading that much more active and entertaining of a sport.
If I were to re-order these steps, this would definitely be number one. It is absolutely impossible to become a close reader without reading slowly.
When you whizz by a beautiful landscape, you don’t really get to appreciate the vast greenery of the land, the magic depth of the sky, or the idiosyncrasies of nature. The same is true for reading.
Close reading allows for greater understanding and appreciation of the author’s style and other rhetorical devices that help enhance the way the story is told. Reading slowly doesn’t mean reading one word at the pace of a tortoise; it simply means not glazing over the text, but reading each word carefully and deliberately.
Look Things Up
Despite what our ego may tell us, we don’t know everything. That’s where the dictionary, thesaurus, and plain old Google comes in. When you’re so engrossed in a text, it might be difficult to pause and look up a word, a phrase, or person the story refers to, but just imagine how much more fulfilling and engrossing the tale would be if you truly understood the references.
When reading closely it is always imperative to have a dictionary or cellphone near, this will also help improve your vocabulary.
Now, you don’t have to master all of these skills at once. Focus on strengthening one and soon the others will follow. Being a closer reader not only allows you to enjoy the full weight of the text, but it also aids you in making a well-thought-out, critical, engaging, and uniquely original response. As you read more closely you are strengthening your critical thinking skills and attention to details; you are also exercising your brain and keeping it stealthy enough to fight off certain conditions that affect the brain.
You can find more benefits of reading on a previous post of mine by clicking here
NW is a meta-exploration/experiment of time and identity. Zadie Smith plays with chronology, plot structure, and syntax. All of these elements are used to paint the vibrant NorthWest London town, home to Leah Hanwell, Natalie Blake (Keisha Blake), and Nathan Bogle. All come from the same place and the same socioeconomic background, but experience three different trajectories.
What’s similar about these three is loss of identity. Each is grappling with the loss of self and trying to reconstruct an identity from the tools they’ve received.
Leah and Natalie battle the time restrictions placed on women and how to respond to their ever-so-loudly ticking biological clocks.
Nathan is dealing with the loss of who he was or who he was perceived to be.
Amongst these trials is tragedy: from murder to theft, Smith illustrates the devaluation of a place already not highly esteemed. The town is as much a character as anyone else; it serves as a force that continues to draw in even those who’ve worked hard to get out. Smith explores how hometowns shape, cultivate, and store our history–clues that might help mend gaps between who we think we are and who we’ve become.
“We all get what we deserve,” explains Natasha Blake, whose identity crisis extends so deep that she changes her name.
Time and chronology are so central to the tale that they become characters along with the town. Smith also plays with this idea of not being able to escape neither right nor left, but being stuck and forced to face whatever it is approaching or attempting to be avoided. This claustrophobia results in drastic decisions made by each character in attempts to escape.
There’s something cinematic about Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW. Perhaps it is the structure: often breaking into fragmented poetic forms of dialogue. Perhaps it is the vivid description of a town riddled with poverty, multiculturalism, and a desperation to either get out, to remain, or to survive. I’m still not sure. I’m still not sure about a lot of things concerning this novel including whether I like it or not. It is certainly a book that deserves a re-read and there is a lot of careful connections made and blatant themes and motifs that all but smack you in the face at every page.
In true Zadie style, there is no ending or tying up of things; we are simply given a vignette of these people’s lives. While no one likes carefully tidied up endings, I was left with a lot of questions.
But, nevertheless, Zadie is a powerful story teller who will pull you in with her humor, her truth, her complexity.
What happens when a White-British soldier and an Bengali-Indian soldier are stranded, fighting a war no one has bothered to tell them is over? Well, a friendship spanning forty years, multiple wives, affairs, and children, of course. At least that’s what happened to Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones in Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth.
White Teeth is a novel that explores the ways in which individuals become involved with each other, either through happenstance or deliberate intervention, and the mess and the beauty that results from it. Archie and Samad’s friendship takes them from a tiny Bulgarian village to the NorthWest London suburb of Willesden. Both get married: Archie to Clara, Samad to Alsana. These unfortunate and impracticle unions introduce a new generation in that of their children.
Irie, Magid, and Millat occupy a confusing place in the globalized, western world: they have historical ties to their parents’ home countries, but their social ties are with the country they were born in, England. This causes deep rifts in all of their households. Both sets of parents are trying to reconcile their past in the standards and limitation that they’ve placed on their children, who are trying to wade the flow of independence and the ebb of “tradition.”
Zadie reveals one of the oldest, yet most painful and hard-to-grasp truths about life and that is that one cannot impose one’s hopes and dreams on another for one will be left with an even deeper disappointment than before.
Zadie’s hilarious wit provides a satiric and comedic introspection into the tangling of roots, and tradition, and independent will. Her observation of the reality of second and third generations of individuals growing up in the western world, and all of the confusion and conflicts that arise is so keen that she instantly becomes a voice of a generation, a class, a culture of people in the 21st century western world.
She has created timeless work that I find to be an important novel for all young people to read. I was nine when this book was first published, but at 22 I can relate to the conflicting and ambiguous worlds of Ire, Magid, and Millat, who are trying to figure out where they fit within their country, their culture, and their religion.
It’s a coming-of-age story, a coming-to-terms story, and an overall enjoyable story that one shouldn’t exit life before having read.
Books have remained constant fixtures in my life. From childhood to early adulthood, I have always had my nose stuck somewhere in the middle of a book. Currently, I have eighteen books checked out from my university’s library–will I get to all of them by the end of the semester, probably not–and I just spent over twenty dollars at a discounted bookshop–did I need any of these of these books for any particular reason, not really. So why hoard an obscene amount of books that I know I haven’t the time to read? Because I’m obsessed with reading–have been since I read my first sentence. I remember when I got my first library card and would practically live in between the shelves—scanning the summaries of novels, piling them up high on the counter and taking them all home to divulge, some with ravenous intrigue, others with a close and slow analyzation. Most books I could never get to, but refused to part with them (resulting in a shameful accumulation of library fines).
There’s an excitement I feel when I think about a good story at home waiting for me to finish. I often rush through tasks, absent-mindedly, longing for the moment at which I and my current beloved book are reunited. It’s not as creepy as I’m making it sound, or perhaps the debilitating need to constantly have a book at the ready, be it in my bag, in my trunk, on my kindle, is a bit manic. Judge all you like, but I am not the only one.
Critically-acclaimed author, Zadie Smith (White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty) in her article for oprah.com, has given a name to this addiction “bibliomania,” and has inducted herself into its solitary and obsessive club.
She admits to:
“packing for a short flight between London and Belfast, with my Kindle, certainly, but also with four or five hardback books jammed into my hand luggage, just in case. Just in case we happen to fly through a wrinkle in time in which an hour expands to accommodate infinity.”
Though Zadie might not feel as if such an obsession is worth being boastful of, I find no reason to be ashamed of it (although it can be quite pathetic if you decline weekend plans with your friends to stay in and read).
If you’ve foud yourself overcome with the same disorder, read more of Zadie’s article.
In this throwback video, check out the enlightening and entertaining conversation between two prolific writer’s: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith at the New York Public Library. The women discuss various themes from stylistic choices in writing, strong female characters, race, sexuality, hair, and the immigrant experience in America.
WARNING: There is a signal lost at 36.56, but the video will reappear.