October 20, 2021
9 Minutes


Book summary of Intimations by Zadie Smith. Read this book summary to review the important takeaways and lessons from the book.

Table Of Contents

1. Peonies

2. The American Exception

3. Something To Do

4. Suffering Like Mel Gibson

5. Screengrabs (After Berger, Before The Virus)

6. Intimations


  • I had 'cycles'. They did not. I was to pay attention to 'clocks'. They needn't. There were special words for me, lurking on the horizon, prepackaged to mark the possible future stages of my existence. I might become a spinster. I might become a crone. I might be a babe or a MILF or 'childless'. My brothers, no matter what else might befall them, would remain men. And at the end of it all, if I were lucky, I would become that most pitiful of things, an old lady, whom I already understood was a figure everybody felt free to patronise, even children.

  • You could make someone feel like a 'real' man - no doubt its own kind of cage - but never a natural one.

  • If, when I was in my twenties, any bold Freudian had dared to suggest that my apartment - filled as it was with furry cushions and furry rugs and furry bolsters, furry throws and furry footstools - in any sense implied a sublimated desire for animal company, or that I was subconsciously feathering my nest in expectation of new life, well, I would have shown that impertinent Freudian the door.

  • Writing is routinely described as 'creative' - this has never struck me as the correct word. Planting tulips is creative. To plant a bulb (I imagine, I've never done it) is to participate in some small way in the cyclic miracle of creation. Writing is control.

  • Writing is all resistance.

  • In the field, experience has no chapter headings or paragraph breaks or ellipses in which to catch your breath. It just keeps coming at you.

  • Is it possible to be as flexible on the page - as shamelessly self-forgiving and ever-changing - as we are in life?

  • Instead, to write is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies, moment by moment.

The American Exception

  • Only new thinking can lead to a new dawn.

  • The Devil is consistent if nothing else.

  • We had dead people. We had casualties, and we had victims. We had more or less innocent bystanders. We had body counts and sometimes even photos in the newspapers of body bags, though many felt it was wrong to show them. We had 'unequal health outcomes'.

  • Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort - and its relative success - been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America.

  • Churchill (who fulfilled his wartime role) learned the hard way that even when the people follow you into war, and even when they agree you've had a 'good' war, this does not necessarily mean they want to return to the 'old life', or be led by you into the new one.

  • People find themselves applauding a national health service that their government criminally underfunded and neglected these past ten years.

  • The Labour Party leader, who beat Churchill in a post-war landslide: 'The war has been won by the efforts of all our people, who, with very few exceptions, put the nation first and their private and sectional interests a long way second. Why should we suppose that we can attain our aims in peace - food, clothing, homes, education, leisure, social security and full employment for all - by putting private interests first?'

Something To Do

  • If you make things, if you are an 'artist' of whatever stripe, you will be asked - or may ask yourself - 'why' you act, sculpt, paint, whatever.

  • In each generation, a few too many people will feel moved to pen an essay called, inevitably, 'Why I Write' or 'Why Write?' under which title you'll find a lot of convoluted, more or less self-regarding reasons and explanations.

  • Out of an expanse of time, you carve a little area - that nobody asked you to carve - and you do 'something'.

  • The more utilitarian-minded defenders of art justify its existence by insisting upon its potential political efficacy, which is usually overstated.

  • People sometimes demand change. They seldom demand art. As a result, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity - and to time itself.

  • Labour is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit.

  • Even as we do something, we simultaneously accuse ourselves: you use this extremity as only another occasion for self-improvement, another senseless act of self-realisation.

  • Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time.

  • The difficulties and complications of love - as they exist on the other side of this wall, away from my laptop - is the task that is before me. However, 'task' is a poor word for it, for, unlike writing, its terms cannot be scheduled, pre-planned or determined by me.

  • Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced and something to go through. That must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.

  • If it weren't for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world. And very little meaningful pleasure for any of us.

  • Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do 'something', that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I'm not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.

Suffering Like Mel Gibson

  • New lovers, for the first time, wonder about love. Is love enough?

  • Privilege and suffering have a lot in common. They both manifest as bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision.

  • Suffering applies itself directly to its subject. It will not be shamed out of itself or eradicated by righteous argument, no matter how objectively correct that argument may be.

  • Class is a bubble formed by privilege, shaping and manipulating your conception of reality. But it can get brought to mind; acknowledged, comprehended, even atoned for through transformative action.

  • Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual - it cannot get easily mediated by a third term like 'privilege'. If it could, the CEO's daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his brain.

Screengrabs (After Berger, Before The Virus)

  • They watch the news, and they believe every damn word like babies that can't even think for themselves.

  • I always tell my students: 'A style is a means of insisting on something.'

  • When we look at familiar things, at familiar people, style recedes or becomes invisible.

  • The man in his twenties is in peak dreaming season: a thrilling time, an insecure time, even at the best of times. It should be full of possibility.

  • A typical second-generation question to ask yourself: how did all that prior abundance fit into this new habitat?

  • This is a British strain of the virus. Class contempt. Technocratic contempt. Philosopher King contempt. When you catch the British strain, you believe the people are there to be ruled. They are to be handled, played, withstood, tolerated - up to a point - ridiculed (behind closed doors), sentimentalised, bowdlerised, nudged, kept under surveillance, directed, used, and closely listened to, but only for data collection, through which means you harvest the raw material required to manipulate them.

  • One of the quirks of the virus - as James Baldwin pointed out - is that it makes the sufferer think the symptom is the cause.

  • To fear the contagion of poverty is reasonable. To keep voting for policies that ensure the permanent existence of an underclass is what is meant by 'structural racism'.

  • The truth is that not enough carriers of this virus have ever been willing to risk the potential loss of any aspect of their social capital to find out what kind of America might lie on the other side of segregation.

  • They are happy to 'blackout' their social media for a day, to read all - black books, and 'educate' themselves about black issues - as long as this education does not occur in the form of actual black children attending their actual schools.


  • To consider yourself lucky, even in situations which almost anybody else would consider extremely difficult and unfair.

  • To forgive anyone who has wounded you, no matter how badly, especially if there is any sign whatsoever that a person has, in wounding you, also wounded themselves.

  • People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders around the important world.

  • The value of being that person who remembers the childhoods of others better than they recall them, and takes it upon themselves to preserve said childhoods for safekeeping.

  • Not only to make art but in some sense to live it.

  • To read every line of a book with the same sense of involvement and culpability as if you had written it yourself.

  • To be never finished thinking, everything is as infinite as God.

  • History as the antidote to dogma.

  • As improbable as it often seems, it is possible to act. To lead. To use your imagination to build practical structures that will in some form improve the lives of the people who enter them.

  • Paranoia about action - and the motivations for action - is the sickly indulgence of intellectuals and philosophers.

  • When in the presence of a child, get on the floor. Or else bend down until your own and the child's eyes meet.

  • Mothering is an art. Housekeeping is an art. Gardening is an art. Baking is an art. Those of us who have no natural gifts in these areas - or perhaps no interest - too quickly dismiss them.

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