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The nearest thing to life by James Wood

The nearest thing to life (2015)

by James Wood

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In the essay "Serious Noticing", James Wood says that the great writers "notice" the details. It is a "Chekhovian eye for detail, the ability to notice well and seriously, the genius for selection" that infuses a story and brings it to life. He thinks of details as "nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them." Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chekhov, Elena Ferrante, Henry James, Saul Bellow are among the many writers he touches upon.

The essay called "Why?" is introduced with a poignant yet clear-eyed description of the memorial service of a friend's brother, using that as the springboard for the question of why do we die? Why do we live? What is the point? Reading fiction has as profound a role as religion.

He sprinkles these seeds of ideas before him, striding confidently through his essay like a farmer planting out his crops for the umpteenth time. He knows exactly how he wants to grow these.

This is a slim book. "Why" was first published in the New Yorker, "Secular Homelessness" was published in London Review of Books, and parts of the other two ("Serious Noticing" and "Using Everything") appeared in a couple of literary journals. Even though I'd read a couple of these essays before, it was a delight to be reacquainted.

It's wonderful having a guide that so eloquently notices the details of the noticers.
( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book reminded me of why I decided to go to graduate school in literature, and reminded me that a passion for fiction is something to treasure. People who truly love reading fiction live their lives through their books, analyze the structure of their lives the way they do books, and this book is a great pleasure to read for such a person. ( )
  briantomlin | Jan 13, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." – George Eliot

George Eliot has provided the perfect epigraph for James Wood's commentary on fiction and its importance in our lives, more specifically its importance in his life. These four essays, which originated as lectures at Brandeis University and the British Museum, combine critical insights with memoir and it is his personal reflections that give them color and flavor. Interspersed with discussions of why we read, the writer's practice of “serious noticing,” and the experience of the writer as exile or expatriate are glimpses of young James Wood in the provinces of England, discovering reading and, at the age of 15, picking up a remaindered book on novels and novelists in Waterloo station that will profoundly influence his life as a reader. Delightful. ( )
  alpin | Jan 11, 2016 |
James Wood has an affinity for serious noticing, in literature and in life. In these essays he applies that talent to both as he reflects upon his life as a journeyman critic. For Wood, everything is available to the critic; his whole life can be brought to bear in his criticism. But the critic, or the best kind of critic, must become an active participant in the drama, reading through the work as a sort of performance, like a great actor or a pianist performing a score. It is an appealing notion even if it may not sustain intense scrutiny.

These essays began life as orations, lectures at Brandeis University and the British Museum. They both benefit and suffer from this. They are lyrical and often playful, an entertainment of sorts despite their sometimes academic subjects. But they lack substantive detail that might not have been easily graspable in the immediacy of the lecture hall. They are at their best when Wood works directly with the literatures that he thinks warrant serious noticing. They are weakest when he moves into theoretical realms, either critical, religious, or philosophical.

And they are charming when he draws details from his own life — the choir boy in Durham Cathedral, the sound of coal shuttling into the basement, the distinctive language of northern England, and the ‘homelooseness’ he experiences as an ex-pat now living in America. Wood is, as usual, a pleasure to read. His enthusiasm for certain writers like Penelope Fitzgerald or W.B. Sebald is infectious. It makes recommending this thin volume an easy thing to do. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Nov 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I only wish I could have heard these talks in person! James Wood does not disappoint with this slim but revealing collection of essays, and it was a treat to read some deeply personal recollections about reading along with the insightful, nuanced literary criticism readers of Wood's have come to expect. Lovely. ( )
  seidchen | Oct 25, 2015 |
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Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds od our personal lot

George Eliot, 'The natural history of German life'
For C.D.M.

And in memory of Sheila Graham Wood (1927-2014)
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Recently, I went to the memorial service of a man I had never met.
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