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The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays

Twenty-three essays showcase preeminent literary critic James Wood as a hungry, happy bookworm.

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Having read several of these pieces as they came out (and having been inspired to try out some of the authors he lauds), I only realized reading them together that, for the most part, Wood’s reviews are not essays but appreciations. So regularly positive and appreciative is he that it seems he’s compelled to announce in the title his one big pan, “Paul Auster’s Shallowness.” Wood is not D. H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf puzzling over and thinking out loud about a book or an author, letting the quick observations prompt new observations and conclusions, and that, really, is the letdown. We don’t see Wood thinking; we see him having thought his way through and then laying out, rather too carefully and self-consciously, the conclusive presentations: “[Edmund Wilson’s] criticism, at once partisan and Olympian, manages the extraordinary feat of being disinterestedly interested.”

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When he is not enhancing our appreciation of modern novelists, he’s taking up such greats as Orwell, Tolstoy, Hardy and (as presented by the translator Robert Alter) God: “Biblical style is famous for its stony reticence ... This reticence ... achieves its best-known form in the family stories of Genesis. The paratactic verses with their repeated ‘and’ move like the hands of those large old railway station clocks that jolted visibly from minute to minute: time is beaten forward, not continuously pursued.” And there, in those clocks, is one of Wood’s too rare fresh images.

In his absolutely exciting and real essay on George Orwell, we get the pleasure of seeing him write his way through feelings, memories, and perceptions (live writing and live reading!): “I sat up when I encountered Orwell’s two references to the East London suburb of Dagenham, because that was where my father was born, in 1928, into exactly the ‘indeterminate class’ that Orwell cannot bring himself to admire.... Theoretically, Orwell had to approve of men like my father; practically, he could not, and in The Road to Wigan Pier, in perhaps the most scandalous paragraph he ever wrote, he announces that the working-class attitude to education is much sounder than the middle class’s – they see through the nonsense of education, ‘and reject it by a healthy instinct,’ and sensibly want to leave school as soon as possible.”

His paragraphs of descriptive and narrative writing, in the opening and closing essays about the Who’s Keith Moon and Wood’s late father-in-law’s library, only go to show that as a personal essayist, it’s as if he’s imitating competency rather than recording his own sensations: “Route 12D, north of Utica, New York, south of Fort Drum and Carthage, runs through poor, shabby countryside. In the unraveled townships, there are trailers and collapsed farmhouses. Here and there, a new silo, shining like a chrome torpedo, suggests a fresh start, or maybe just the arrival of agribusiness. The pall of lost prosperity hangs heavily. Heavily? No, to the skimming driver aiming elsewhere it only falls vaguely, or vaguely guiltily.”

Okay, so instead he’s simply a great reviewer who has earned himself one of the largest forums in literary criticism today. He’s a hungry, happy bookworm, appreciative of the novels and novelists who feed him and us. That’s fun enough.

Bob Blaisdell reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has edited dozens of anthologies for Dover Publications.

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