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The Nearest Thing to Life

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  540 ratings  ·  72 reviews
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 person ...more
Paperback, 134 pages
Published April 28th 2015 by Brandeis University Press (first published 2015)
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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
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
Dec 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
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 reflecti
May 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: miniature, lit-crit

Four stars mainly because he sort of reiterates a few insights that appeared in previous books. Not the worst literary crime of all time, and I happen to agree with them, but there it is. But more importantly, I think he has a beautifully lucid, learned and accessible writing style and the way he weaves personal testimony with literary analysis always delights and instructs...

And here's my more comprehensive, official- type review:
May 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm certain it helped that I heard Wood give a reading of the first part of the fourth chapter. I had his wonderfully lyrical voice, his lilting cadence, to accompany the experience of consuming his words on my own. I loved homelooseness, afterwardness, vignettes into Wood's life, and becoming familiar with his style of literary criticism. With books like these, I often find myself wanting to have a discussion with John, to hear his perspective. ...more
Jeffrey Howard
Aug 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
James Wood is charming, weaving sentimental antidotes from his own life with quotations and allusions to the many literary works which have impacted him. Waxing nostalgic, and introspective on how life matters to us, Wood is in his prime. He echoes the voice of a sharp literary critic who has softened with age.

The Nearest Thing to Life is a collection of 4 short essays derived from lectures given in the past few years. In 'Why' he visits the overlapping themes between religion and literature. Th
Elena Sala
Oct 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The essays collected in this slim volume were originally delivered as lectures. They are a very personal blend of memoir and critical reflection from one of the living critics I like best.
He takes his title and epigraph from George Eliot: “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". Wood believes that the meaning of life, if there is one, can be found in art, or, more specifically, i
Absolutely great. Read it twice in one week. Can't wait to read it again. About life and fiction and the bridge between. Made me want to sit down with him for an evening or two and just listen... ...more
Aug 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
“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.
Corryn W
Oct 31, 2017 rated it liked it
(3.5) Wood blends memoir, criticism and theory in an inventive way throughout this book. I am glad that I read it, but likely wouldn't pick it up again. While the genre-bending and connection to the "real world" are enticing, if you're looking to read something by James Wood, I'd sooner reach for "How Fiction Works." ...more
Suraj Gunwant
Had Expected More

I am not sure if my reaction to the book is due to my flawed, distracted reading or the book failed to move me intellectually and emotionally. Perhaps later some day I will go to the book again to get more out of it.
Jun 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
The themes of homelessness and "homelooseness" resonated with me. I read this as I wonder whether I should go back to the province or stay in the metropolis as I jumpstart my medical practice. James Wood's essays are engaging, eloquent, and sympathetic. ...more
Nelson Wattie
Aug 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What can matter more to us than questions of birth, life and death? With admirable concision, James Wood brings it to a point: “Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and kills all the answers. And how remarkable, that this first question, the word we utter as small children when we first realize that life will be taken away from us, does not change, really, in depth or tone or mode, throughout our lives. It is our first and last question, uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage ...more
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Wood does a nice job read through the text, not just boring into them. A great read if you need to remember why literature/storytelling is a vital part of life.
Zeba Clarke
Aug 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Revelatory. Think afresh about the nature of fiction, metaphor and sense of place, sense of belonging.
Wendy Liu
James Wood gives me life (or at least, the nearest thing to it). My only problem with this extremely short book is that I wish it was longer.
Asli Basarir
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Why and secular homelessness parts affected me the most. Probably it is because I thought about these subjects all the time.
Christopher Taylor
Jul 04, 2015 rated it liked it
James Wood has met Middle Age. Throughout this book it is evident that Wood has been gripped by the tidal pull of mid-life, looking back to his youth while turning, in the same movement, to acknowledge death. The four essays in this collection (“Why?”, “Serious Noticing”, “Using Everything”, and “Secular Homelessness”) examine: the shape of a life, the buoyancy of detail, the art in criticism, and what it means not to be at home. These are diverse topics, certainly, but Wood's stance toward them ...more
Apr 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
A revelatory collection that analyzes fiction and literature and what makes the best of it a singular art form, what makes it "the nearest thing to life." I've always been impressed by Wood's criticism in The New Yorker, but I wasn't prepared for the level of insights that fill this 125-page volume. If one is a serious reader of fiction -- and especially if one is a writer of fiction or a writer of criticism -- this one shouldn't be missed.

Just two favorite nuggets of observation: "Reading ficti
Anne Goodwin
Why do we read fiction and why do we need a literary critic to comment on what we read? Seduced by a review in the Guardian and beguiled by the title, despite feeling distinctly unqualified, I thought I’d give this short book, a blend of memoir and criticism, a go. I was looking for ideas on how to improve my own fiction writing and reviewing and, failing that, insights into why so many of us have a passion for books.
The latter was the subject of the first section and, for me, the most engaging.
Dec 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"Reading fiction feels radically private because so often we seem to be stealing the failed privacies of fictional characters. For sure, Shakespeare anticipates and contains all of the unruly life to be found in the modern novel. But Shakespearean soliloquy is uttered privacy (which has its roots in prayer, and ultimately in the psalms), while fictional stream of consciousness is, or tries to resemble unvoiced soliloquy. And unvoiced soliloquy seems to meet our own unfinished thoughts, with the ...more
Many ideas in those essays are not that original, but the parts about James Wood's reading experiences and his personal recollections make this slim book shimmer with intelligence and genuine human emotions. The last chapter "Secular Homelessness" especially strikes a chord with me, since I began to live a boarding-school life when I was 13 (which means that every year I could only live with my parents for at the maximum of four months). As years passed by, I think my parents and I have became v ...more
Derek Finnigan
The book is most interesting when it discusses the author's childhood and family. It is a collection of lectures, with a considerable focus on the effects of exile on a person's life, and how this choice, when it is a choice and not a necessity, alters the trajectory of a life. It considers the sense of homelessness that exile can create. Exile, of course, is a state of mind, and the book successfully reveals how this sense of exile has influenced and affected the author's life. An interesting a ...more
Essays on how art and fiction shape and texture our lives. Part criticism, part memoir. The conspiracy between reader and writer and what is at stake in reading fiction. A lovely, reflective book.
Oct 05, 2015 rated it liked it
This book is based on a series of lecture given by the author with the main theme of how literature is the nearest thing, even the transcended, crystalline re-imagination of life itself. The author touched upon his own life, books and authors of particular notes, and points of literature critics. Most of the mentioned authors and books are near modern contemporaries, going mostly back to early twentieth century. However, for reasons I could not entirely fathom, I do not find myself entirely enga ...more
May 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
the first two chapters, one on the purpose of fiction and the other on the "serious noticing" required of artists, were phenomenal. loved all his references, he acts as an aggregator for good fiction in a way that only a book critic could. his meditations on criticism and the concept of home were also excellent, though perhaps overshadowed by the density and depth of the first half of the book. a really great read overall, i've already recommended to many friends. ...more
Julie M
Aug 13, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: the intellectually inclined writer/reader
Recommended to Julie by: Was it WILD WORDS blog? Nicole G.
A bit academic, but insightful, short chapters from this British-American literary critic and prof. I sometimes like reading the "why" writers are who they are; their challenges, inspiration, influences. Just fascinating. Good chapter on "exiles" and what he terms 'home looseness' - about modern ex-pats of any country who write about home, but having the ability to actually return there, even as they emigrate to/live in another country.
Tom Romig
Aug 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
"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

His prose a model of grace and precision, James Wood draws us in with the vigor of his insights, with his ebullient love of literature and life. Pure pleasure!
Mar 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Short, powerful book of essays returning to themes such as how fiction works, why and when it is great, and how the literary critic working in the same medium as her subject has a unique position among critics. Poignant essay, drawing from Wood's own life, on the post-globalization "secular homelessness" and it's literature. Lots of great book recommendations too. ...more
Mark Valentine
Jun 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Art. All things art. Criticized, reflected, distracted, symbolic, hidden, subtle, exchanged, whispered, solemnized, trivial, high, primary, dislocated, base, poetic, mistaken, inclusive, shimmering, fractured, ignored, historical, listless, inspirational, enriching art.

"Art is the nearest thing to life." --George Eliot

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James Douglas Graham Wood is an English literary critic, essayist and novelist. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University (a part-time position) and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.
Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature, rather than more ideologically-driven trends in academic literary criticism.
Wood is noted for coining the genre t

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“is there so much suffering, so much death? I was told that God’s ways are incomprehensible, and that in many cases, a Job-like humility” 1 likes
“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’,18 which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it 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.” 0 likes
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