Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Adventures of the Unself

The L.A. Times has released its list of the best books of 2009. I know most culture snobs find these kinds of lists pointless and capriciously arbitrary, but personally I love going through the "best of" round-ups at this time of year. I like the idea of critics giving an annual valedictory thumbs-up to their favorites, and I always seem to find something I overlooked over the course of the year.

Anyway, included in the aforementioned list is this entry:

"Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays" by Zadie Smith
The British writer reflects on Greta Garbo, literary trends, Oscar parties and more in a lively, unself-conscious, rigorous, erudite collection.

It's the "unself-conscious" that strikes me as odd. Somehow, it just doesn't seem right--as if we're talking about being conscious in an "unself" way. But what's the solution then? We know that "self-conscious" is traditionally hyphenated, so maybe add another and make it "un-self-conscious?" No, that looks silly. The answer, I found, after making the rounds of a few of the more prominent dictionaries, is to cast off the hyhpens entirely and go with "unselfconscious," which I suppose is, on balance, the most elegant solution to this knotty conundrum.

By the way, for what it's worth, my nominee for best book of essays this year would have to go to Michael Chabon's "Manhood for Amateurs." It's witty, poignant, and full of extended passages of deliciously graceful prose. My unself consciously recommends it.