Novelist Zadie Smith underscores to Stanford students the importance of reading

Zadie Smith
Author Zadie Smith spoke to undegraduate students during a workshop at the Stanford Humanities Center on March 7. (Steve Castillo)

“For me, a writer is someone who reads,” the British novelist and essayist ZADIE SMITH told a group of Stanford students during her recent campus visit. “I’m a reading addict.”

The author of such best sellers as White Teeth, On Beauty and Swing Time was on campus last week to deliver the 2019 Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts, hosted by the Stanford Humanities Center.

But before the public talk, a lucky group of 20 undergraduates had their own private audience with Smith. During the hour-long workshop in the Humanities Center board room, Smith was direct and sincere as she fielded questions about her daily routine (“I read in every gap I have. That’s all I do.”), the ideas she decides to pursue in her writing (“It has to be a kind of obsession.), her passions (“I love music. I have to ration it … otherwise, I’d sit on the sofa all day and watch music videos.”) and what she’s currently reading (James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan).

The participants were nominated by Stanford faculty members and were asked to bone up on Smith’s work in advance.

Senior SEMILORE SOBANDE finished On Beauty over break to prepare.

“Zadie has this larger-than-life image but is really down to Earth,” she said afterward.

Sophomore CLAIRE DAUGE-ROTH said she “loved the way [Smith’s] prose works. It’s so alive.”

Later that evening, in a packed CEMEX Auditorium, Smith was interviewed by HARRY ELAM, JR., vice president for the arts at Stanford, who shared that his daughter wrote her honors thesis on Zadie Smith.

Smith had high praise for students and teaching: “I do like being in a room with very smart young people bringing their news. It keeps you on your toes.”

And she can now add talented mimic to her list of accomplishments. Smith started things off by reading an essay from her latest book, Feel Free. In it, she compares the protagonist of artist Mark Bradford’s 2005 video installation Niagara to Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film of the same name. Imagining what it’s like to watch a black man swishing down the street, Smith affected (convincingly) a full-on Marilyn voice.

“Wasn’t that great,” said a surprised Elam.

For more about Smith’s work and career, visit the Stanford University Libraries Presidential Lecture site, which includes excerpts from her writings.