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The Nearest Thing to Life
James Wood

The Mandel Lectures in the Humanities

2015 • 144 pp. 5 x 8"
Books & Reading / Essays / Memoir

$19.95 Paperback, 978-1-61168-742-2
$16.99 Ebook, 978-1-61168-743-9

Check your ebook retailer or local library for ebook availability.

No sales outside US & Canada

Rich in verbal artistry . . . [Wood] provides virtuoso displays of eloquence and insight.”
Publishers Weekly

On the meaning of fiction

In this remarkable blend of memoir and criticism, James Wood, the noted contributor to the New Yorker, 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,” The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, and The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Wood reveals his own intimate relationship with the written word: we see the development of a boy from the provinces growing up in a charged Christian environment, the secret joy of his childhood reading, the links he draws between reading and blasphemy, or between literature and music. The final section discusses fiction in the context of exile and homelessness. More than a tightly argued little book by a man commonly regarded as our finest living critic, The Nearest Thing to Life is an exhilarating personal account that reflects on, and embodies, the fruitful conspiracy between reader and writer (and critic), and asks us to reconsider everything that is at stake when we read and write fiction.

Click here for TABLE OF CONTENTS

Reviews / Endorsements

“[These] conversational essays [are] as illuminating in their quiet sophistication as they are revealing about Wood himself.”—Newsweek

“[Wood’s] head is the vessel in which the treasures of literature are gathered to be protected from time. But the treasury Wood guards is not merely aesthetic: books are safety-deposit boxes for human affection, like urns that contain words not ashes.”—The Guardian

"Offering characteristically sensitive readings of Penelope Fitzgerald, Chekhov, De Quincey and others, Wood’s latest book also features grand pronouncements about literature of the kind that have provoked accusations that he is old-fashioned. In this case, however, he presents a more vulnerable, approachable version of himself by including details about his own life, as a boy in England and as a father living in Boston."—New York Times Book Review

“Wood, in this wonderful book, is able to exude dispassionate scrutiny with personal expression, a rare feat indeed.”—
The Millions

"All four essays are infused with bits of Wood’s life, often conveyed in passages of fine prose demonstrating his own eye for details, his own serious noticing. It gives his book a most comfortable continuity and makes it a pleasure to read.”
NY Journal of Books

“Reading Wood on how literature works isn’t just a pleasure in itself, it can help us in making the blur of experience visible and vivid, a means of invigorating what Henry James called “the palpable present-intimate.” His approach is useful as literary criticism, but it is also as a way of subtly encouraging readers to pay closer attention to the texts of their own lives.
The Arts Fuse

“For Wood, the question of how to live with fiction is enmeshed with the question of what literature has done with him, as much as he with it, when he was a religious boy, then a curious teenager, and now a self-exiled adult.”
Common Knowledge


Short-Listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award
New York Magazine best books of 2015 Commendation

JAMES WOOD is a British-born literary critic, essayist, and novelist. He is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

Thu, 14 Mar 2019 13:08:27 -0500