On not reading Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”

It took me three years to finally sit down to read Zadie Smith‘s “White Teeth.” The book was the literary treasure of my hip friends, and at the time I was in that stage of life where everything had to be defensively original. There was something about having everyone telling me to read this book that, in some metaphysical way, prevented me from reading “White Teeth,” though I really, really did want to.

My desire to read “White Teeth” wasn’t passive — I was in possession of a used, non-library copy of the book in 2007 and I brought it with me everywhere for two years, hoping for a bout of reader’s enlightenment at any moment (in the library bathroom, for instance). Then the book lived on the shelf for one year. I finally (finally!) picked up “White Teeth” a little bit ago and promptly consumed it in a period of about a month. Took long enough.

“White Teeth” was expansive, its characters numerous, its tackling of stereotype, race, and age detailed and believable. The ending was a bit shaky (as I hear is the general criticism for the book), but the enjoyment in “White Teeth,” for me, was based more in the process of reading rather than in the getting somewhere.



I found myself skeptical of several plot arcs and more than a little frustrated with every one of the characters from time to time. Sometimes I would be so wanting to slap Samad that I’d wonder why I was reading this book at all. But there’s a pleasure inherent to “White Teeth” in how Smith writes. The wittiness, the awareness, and the delivery of the book’s statements and insights provided enough hurtling momentum for me to finish several hundred pages in the course of one sit-down, which was miraculous, especially considering my “White Teeth” dry spell for three years.

It is strange realizing after ten years of something existing that you have completely missed its cultural boat. Granted, the book is British, and as an American, I feel slightly less ashamed of not being in the loop of the “White Teeth” extravaganza (but perhaps this is just a cover-up for my stubborn, torn, slightly embarrassing let’s-not-read-this-book-yet-bring-it-everywhere-just-in-case period).

While I could have spared myself the hassle of not reading “White Teeth,” I ultimately think my not-reading was a good idea. In the three years between picking up the book and finally reading it, I’ve become more aware of gender, race, and stereotype in a way that has allowed “White Teeth” to become so brilliant and strikingly real in its dealings with inter-racial and inter-cultural interactions.

The book also highlights the lives of racial and ethnic minorities and puts them into the fore in a way I haven’t seen very often. And this is another reason to appreciate not-reading — I am at a point in my life where I can really see and appreciate the literary exposure of minorities, recognizing now that I don’t very often see myself (or permutations of myself) in the media and in books.

In this one case (and perhaps not very many others, as I love reading), not-reading can be a good thing.


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