"James Wood, the New Yorker book critic and a professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, charts his own journey through the literature he most admires in his new book The Nearest Thing to Life, a compilation of lectures delivered at Brandeis University. ...While his title, borrowed from an essay by George Eliot in which she calls art the “nearest thing to life,” points to the intimate connection between the two, it also reminds us that art is not life. .... For Wood, the thrill of reading fiction is intimately connected with the awareness that fiction constitutes “an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered.” The excitement comes when, as readers, we’re allowed to participate in this freedom and experience the fiction imaginatively, without being required to believe that it is true.
Wood has made a career out of reading literature and clearly loves what he does. He loves the way that literature changes how we think about our own lives. He loves its ability “to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.” He is not all that interested in ranking books; what he aims to do as a critic, he explains, is to offer “passionate redescription” of the books he admires most. Bellow, Chekhov, John Berger, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Aleksandar Hemon, Elizabeth Bishop—they and others are singled out by Wood for their ability to awaken us from the deadening “sleep of our attention.”
Great writers extend our capacity for “serious noticing,” Wood says. We learn to look more closely at our world by reading artful descriptions of fictional worlds. For Wood, literature provides a crucial education, and in this short book, packed with insight, he identifies the rewards of skillful, careful reading. He ignores, however, the mounting evidence that serious reading is in serious danger of being lost to future generations."