The Nearest Thing
to Life

nolead begins By James Wood

Brandeis University Press. 144 pp. $19.95.

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by

Susan Balée

nolead ends James Wood appreciates books. Narratives move him emotionally as well as intellectually, and he can hear the music of good prose. Readers of the New Yorker will recognize his well-wrought meditations on writers from V.S. Naipaul to Penelope Fitzgerald. When not essaying, he's teaching at Harvard, urging his students to read like writers. Wood advocates "writer's criticism," and that's not theory, it's art.

The essays in this book were lectures first, three at Brandeis University (the publisher), and one at an event sponsored by the London Review of Books. They share a tilt toward memoir that only enhances his essays and the judgments therein.

Wood shows us the forces of family and education that shaped him. Reading fiction became a subversive act for him as a young reader, an atheist in hiding from his evangelical Christian parents, particularly his father, who, ironically, also happened to be a professor of zoology. Wood rejected his father's faith, unable to "reconcile the suffering and the meaninglessness of life with the notion of a providential, benign, and powerful deity." His parents revered the Bible, but Wood worshiped fiction.

His apologia: "I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and short story as an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered." Wood recognizes that fictional texts are another kind of scripture, akin to religious texts, but crucially different. Belief is not demanded but left up to the judgment of the reader. "Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt," he writes, "knows it is a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. . . . Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction." People die, but characters in books don't, "not quite," as Wood is fond of saying. They live again each time we reread.

Wood's essays, particularly the intimate details of growing up in Durham, England, make me wish he'd write more fiction or a straight-up memoir. In describing his chorister days at the cathedral school, he remembers singing "O Nata Lux," its beauty piercing him, and then seeing in the dim light of the massive nave the even dimmer outline of his mother standing at its far edge.

Sounds like the opening line of a story to me, one he can dedicate to his late mother, as he did this volume.

Literature remains Wood's true religion, and he practices his faith with fine, clean prose and a searching heart. He doesn't dissect texts, he illuminates them.