On Beauty by Zadie Smith is like one long piece of poetry. I don’t know what it is about this book that is otherwise so alluring and compelling; because when I read it I certainly did not find the story captivating. In fact, at times I found it was too-drawn out, too dry, and otherwise quite boring.
But the way this woman writes emotion; man. It’s flipping beautiful.
I read this book because it’s in the top ten of my 1001 books list, and I was curious because I hadn’t really heard much about it. I delved into the world of the academic Belseys with relish; they are all such messy characters, each trying to be “true” to themselves in whatever way possible, and all of them failing on one level or another. I read it for the beginning of the summer because I had nothing else to do, and I want to learn more about beauty. In my typical restless fashion; I’ve discovered that I have fallen out of love with Edinburgh; it is time for this little bird to fly somewhere else. I can’t stand going home; if that is even a place that exists for me. The one place I felt at home was my old 2001 Kia Sportage, and I totaled my home nearly two years ago. Spending my nights at a house I rent, filled with things I don’t need that I keep because other people will tell me they look nice, feels so heavy. I am suffocating under the weight of my own need to belong to… somewhere. I feel like my life, my house, my job, my actions, are all so ugly. And I don’t know what to do about it. So I read a book about beauty to see if it would help.
What is so compelling about this book is how different all the characters are in their form of pursuing life and fulfillment, and yet how they are all so fundamentally similar. We have Howard and Kiki; two adults who have realized that they have spent the bulk of their lives together and they are unsure if it was actually satisfying. Their three children; Jerome, Zora, and Levi are all in a frantic sprint to find meaning and satisfaction in life as soon as possible. At a glance; you would guess that the most satisfied and content people would be Howard, who is a successful professor at a prestigious private New England college. But within pages of the novel you discover his inner turmoil, his disastrous affair, and his failure to be there for both his children and his wife. Arguably the happiest/most content person is Mrs. Kipps, who, if you read the novel, is perhaps also one of the most tragic (in conventional terms) for her lack of independence from her family and husband.
Now, a couple days ago I went to a mixer for graduate students at Edinburgh University. Essentially rubbing elbows with some of the top academic minds in the country, it was an eye-opening experience. I enjoyed it for how interesting it was to see so many people who studied so many different facets of life; now forced to interact with one another in a relaxed and informal way. Almost like watching 300 newborn giraffes trying to walk around. In a way, it was frustrating because it all felt so fake and pretentious; but at the same time I wanted so badly to be able to say “Oh yea, I’m a PhD candidate in the English Department” because it would be so flipping cool to say that I was a Doctor. I wanted that name on a diploma so badly, just so I could feel like I belonged somewhere. But at the same time I felt frustrated because that’s not what I want. I don’t want to go through the hoops and jumps of scholarly tradition. And I realized I was thinking that the grass was greener on the other side; that these people had their shit together and I didn’t, and I was so obviously a failure because I didn’t go to Yale or Oxford, or whatever college people wore on their blazer pockets, and that I wasn’t smart enough to kiss the ground these people walked on. But writing about this book; about a family of people who’ve spent their whole life in academic circles, made me realize that it’s no more fulfilling or satisfying than anything else. Yes, it may have more of a “blue blood” feel to it, but being happy is not about the titles.
This book is titled “On Beauty,” a tribute to Howard’s controversial stand on art and what constitutes”aesthetic beauty.” But it relates to the rest of the novel too; the way that we perceive beauty, and even more importantly, how we enjoy beauty in our own lives. We’re all looking for something to be beautiful, whether it’s our job, our family, our home, our memories. What we find beautiful is not always universal; someone’s biomolecular paper would be my nightmare, but to them it is breathtaking. The beauty is here, you just have to learn how to stop trying to find it, and learn how to just see it.