Zadie on Wallace, Readers as Amateur Musicians

Zadie Smith, author of my favorite novel of 2005, just appeared on Bookworm. Early on in the conversation, Smith said that she’s been thinking a lot about “what good reading involves,” a subject she’ll be lecturing about soon.

Smith: I think of reading as a skill and an art. And if you read badly – I always think a good example – I’ve been trying to write this essay on [David] Foster Wallace and when you first read Foster Wallace, or when critics read him, they give him back the thing that they think they see, which is some smart aleck with smart language, but [they have] no idea of what this –

Silverblatt: Yes, that he’s trying to determine what truth is. What can be said truly.

Smith: Exactly. An incredible ethicist and serious moral writer. But there’s a kind of superficial layer of him, which if you can’t be bothered to think any deeper, it just seems, ‘Here’s some wise guy, with his wiseass stories.’ And that’s not true. But the problem with readers, the idea we’ve been given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principal is, 'I should sit here and be entertained.’ And the more classical model is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and the artist gives you. That’s an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.