cover image The Nearest Thing to Life

The Nearest Thing to Life

James Wood. Brandeis Univ./UPNE, $35 (144p) ISBN 978-1-61168-742-2

Relating literature to life and vice versa, the four essays collected in this volume from Wood (The Fun Stuff)—the first three originally written for Brandeis University’s Mandel Lectures series—provide virtuoso displays of eloquence and insight. In “Why?” death is presented as a bookend to life that encourages us to find structure in the moments lived between the beginning and end of being, just as a well-wrought work of fiction creates a sense of meaning in the events between its beginning and end. “Serious Noticing” uses Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss” as a touchstone for studying the times in a life that “represent those moments in a story where form is outlived, canceled, evaded.” “Using Everything” is a delightful remembrance of the author’s youthful discovery of criticism that is more “passionate redescription” than academic analysis, and that deploys literature’s own “language of metaphor and simile.” Wood often draws on his personal life, as in “Secular Homelessness,” wherein he likens watching his children grow up American in a country where he is not a naturalized citizen to reading about fictional characters. His prose is rich in verbal artistry and laced with references to an abundance of writers. These essays are clearly the work of someone who has read widely and with infectious enthusiasm. 73 illus. (June)