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  • Published: 16 April 2015
  • ISBN: 9781473513501
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 144

The Nearest Thing To Life

The ‘most influential critic of his generation’ explains what makes him passionate about writing

In this remarkable blend of memoir and criticism, James Wood 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’, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.

Wood reveals his own intimate relationship with the written word: we see the development of a provincial boy growing up in a charged Christian environment, the secret joy of his childhood reading, the links he makes between reading and blasphemy, or between literature and music. The final section discusses fiction in the context of exile and homelessness. The Nearest Thing to Life is not simply a brief, tightly argued book by a man commonly regarded as our finest living critic – it is also an exhilarating personal account that reflects on, and embodies, the fruitful conspiracy between reader and writer (and critic), and asks us to re-consider everything that is at stake when we read and write fiction.

  • Published: 16 April 2015
  • ISBN: 9781473513501
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 144

About the author

James Wood

James Wood has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2007. In 2009, he won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian from 1992 to 1995, and a book critic at the New Republic from 1995 to 2007. He has published a number of books with Cape, including How Fiction Works, which has been translated into thirteen languages.

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Praise for The Nearest Thing To Life

The Nearest Thing to Life…[proves] that whether in short form or long, printed or spoken word, Wood is a voice worth listening to.

Malcolm Forbes, National

The Nearest Thing to Life is excellent: both insightful and sensible, a rare enough combination in criticism. Wood’s own noticings are as sharp as ever.

Theo Tait, Sunday Times

Brief but fascinating discourse.

Max Liu, Independent

[Has] an elegant lightness of touch… [A] slim, appealingly modest collection.

Matilda Bathurst, Country Life

[A] short but lovely volume.

Laurence Scott, Financial Times

Autobiographical, open-handed and endlessly engaging.


Wood scrutinises devastatingly simple ideas. He does the work of the novelist in making his reader examine these concepts anew through gorgeously accomplished, apt language.

Totally Dublin

I can’t wait to read [it].

Stuart Kelly, The Times Literary Supplement

A hugely enjoyable journey though the riches of [Wood’s] extraordinarily well-stocked mind.

Good Book Guide

His [Wood’s] concept of literature is generous, inclusive and fundamentally democratic.

Michael Lindgren, Washington Post