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Writers are Readers: “The Nearest Thing to Life”

REVIEWER: Sharon Houk

BOOK TITLE: The Nearest Thing to Life

AUTHOR: James Wood

GENERAL SYNOPSIS: Reflections by a master literary critic about great writing.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS: This book largely sprang from a series of lectures given by master literary critic James Wood regarding art and great writing. If you want to know what people find compelling in great writing, this is a good first stop. James Wood takes us on a series of reflections of both his life and the artistic enterprise writ large. We find ourselves in a childhood choir loft sniggering at a clumsy minister and at a funeral considering how we draw out the telling of a life after it’s gone. This work is philosophical and theological, but mostly it is personal.


I ran across James Wood on the internet, although I should have already been well aware of him from The New Yorker, and I found myself wishing I could spend an afternoon listening to him talk about what makes for good writing. This book is as close as I’ve come. I could take guidance and inspiration from every page, but the most important takeaway for my writing is for me to continue to make efforts to see: see everything, including people, in their detail and as they are prior to language itself. For me, writing is the creation of a space of experience. There is a bright orange coffee mug on my desk from Wiesbaden, Germany, displaying the date “1566”. It contains not coffee but instead a tiny red leather 1983 appointment diary – a gift from the Bank of Tokyo. The edges of the thin pages are gilded and there is a red ribbon to mark the passage of time.

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