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The Nearest Thing To Life In this remarkable blend of memoir and criticism, James Wood has written a master class on the connections between fiction and life He argues that, of all the arts, fiction has a unique ability to describe the shape of our lives, and to rescue the texture of those lives from death and historical oblivion The act of reading is understood here as the most sacred and personal of activities, and there are brilliant discussions of individual works among others, Chekhov s story The Kiss , W G Sebald s The Emigrants, and Fitzgerald s The Blue FlowerWood reveals his own intimate relationship with the written word we see the development of a provincial boy growing up in a charged Christian environment, the secret joy of his childhood reading, the links he makes between reading and blasphemy, or between literature and music The final section discusses fiction in the context of exile and homelessness The Nearest Thing to Life is not simply a brief, tightly argued book by a man commonly regarded as our finest living critic it is also an exhilarating personal account that reflects on, and embodies, the fruitful conspiracy between reader and writer and critic , and asks us to re consider everything that is at stake when we read and write fiction Literature, like art, pushes against time s fancy makes us insomniacs in the halls of habit, offers to rescue the life of things from the dead It is neither a coherently organized memoir nor a solid book of criticism, but it is very enjoyable What can I say I m a sucker for James Wood because I already hold most of his opinions about fiction. 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 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 Wood and me have always gone round and round, me thinking him too too flippant about some writing I really like,, him going all deep haaaarvard about writings I think facile and boring Plus, he s seemed so un generous at times to writers But then over generous to others Well, I guess he s got his reasons, and this book has reconciled us somewhat the wedding is BACK ON joke, please.This book is from a series of lectures at brandeis, and a talk at british museum and LRB s essay But have bee Wood and me have always gone round and round, me thinking him too too flippant about some writing I really like,, him going all deep haaaarvard about writings I think facile and boring Plus, he s seemed so un generous at times to writers But then over generous to others Well, I guess he s got his reasons, and this book has reconciled us somewhat the wedding is BACK ON joke, please.This book is from a series of lectures at brandeis, and a talk at british museum and LRB s essay But have been polished up for written form a love letter and justification for readers, literature lovers, thinkers, and james wood too has nice endnotes and are tourdeforce example of how how much literature and citation is in james wood s head From page 63 64, chapter on how literature how writers and readers seriously notices things To notice is to rescue, to redeem to save life from itself One of the characters in Marilynne Robinson s novel Housekeeping is described as a girl who felt the life of perished things In the same book, Robinson writes of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to rescue him, a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail I like the idea that heaven might reward us for what we have lost by paying attention to detail, that heaven must perforce be a place of serious noticing But perhaps we can bring back life, or extend life, here on earth, by doing the same by applying what Walter Benjamin once called the natural prayer of the soul attentiveness We can bring the dead back by applying the same attentiveness to their shades as we apply to the world around us by looking harder by transfiguring the object Benjamin s phrase comes in a letter to Adorno about Kafka perhaps Adorno was recalling this idea of attentiveness when he wrote, in Negative Dialectics , that if the thought really yielded to the object, if its attention were on the object, not on its category, the very objects would start talking under the lingering eye See, there they are, talking to us the poplars, the lilac, and the roses That peppermint tingle The kiss From the summation, the last page of this thoughtful, fun book about books and james wood, page 123 124 He is taling about writers writing from exile, or place anyway, where they come from, where they ended up, and wood s idea of homelooseness Almost but not quite When I left England eighteen years ago, I didn t know then how strangely departure would obliterate return how could I have known It s one of time s lessons, and can only be learned temporally What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth is the slow revelation that I made a large choice many years ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time that it has taken years for me to see this and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life is indeed how life is lived Freud has a wonderful word, afterwardness, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping if from its very different context To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of afterwardness it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done And that may be all right My Scottish grandmother used to play a game, in which she entered the room with her hands behind her back You had to guess which hand held a sweet, as she intoned Which hand do you tak , the richt or the wrang When we were children, the decision seemed momentous you HAD at all costs to avoid the disappointment of the empty wrang hand Which did I choose 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 EliotGeorge Eliot has provided the perfect epigraph for James Wood s commentary on fiction and its importance in our lives,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 reflecti 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 EliotGeorge Eliot has provided the perfect epigraph for James Wood s commentary on fiction and its importance in our lives,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

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