The New Yorker critic celebrates the richness of literature in his own life.
At once touching, elegant, and wise, the essays collected in this slim volume were originally delivered as lectures, the first three at Brandeis University and the fourth at the British Museum. Wood (Literary Criticism/Harvard Univ.; The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, 2012, etc.) admires criticism that is “not especially analytical” but rather “a kind of passionate redescription.” His own reflections on a wide range of writers—including Woolf, Chekhov, Teju Cole, Henry Green, and Aleksandar Hemon—are infused with the passion of a voracious, highly discerning reader. Since childhood, he writes, books have “irradiated” his mind “by the energy of their compressed contents.” Growing up in the northern English town of Durham in a family of “engaged Christians,” Wood found in literature answers to the philosophical question “why?” that were not simply theological. When he was 15, he discovered Martin Seymour-Smith’s Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction. He was enthralled by the book’s gazetteer of writers and by the author’s terse evaluations of a novel’s greatness. Seymour-Smith was a literary “Siskel and Ebert.” For Wood, “great writing asks us to look more closely, it asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphors and imagery.” Metaphors generate a “form of identification” that creates a reader’s empathy for fictional characters. Great writers, Wood adds, “rescue the life of things” from annihilation caused by fading memories and inattention. In “Secular Homelessness,” Wood considers the “strange distance, the light veil of alienation thrown over everything” that he feels in America, where he has lived for the past 18 years. He offers the word “homelooseness” as more accurate than homelessness or exile to describe that sense: a feeling that “the ties that bind one to Home have been loosened.”
Deeply thoughtful essays on literature’s gifts and consolations.