Thursday, August 13, 2015

The art of serious reading

In his regular pieces for The New Yorker, the literary critic James Wood gives you hope for the ailing arts of reading and writing. Wood is a master of both things. He uses words as scrupulously as he listens to them; his prose hears nuance and has it. His stuff is like a reviver tent by the side of the information highway. When the traffic starts to dull your brain, Wood can always be relied on to remind you what real thinking sounds like.

In his new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood unshackles himself from the obligations of the critical review, and unfurls a sustained, free-ranging meditation about life, art, and the relationship between them ... [read more]

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Winning ugly

J. M. Coetzee writes the way Ivan Lendl played tennis: authoritatively but grimly. There isn’t much warmth in the performance. One doubts, for that matter, that either man would consider “performance” to be part of his job description. The Good Story is an exchange of letters between the Nobel Prize winning novelist and the psychologist Arabella Kurtz, who practices and teaches in England. The book is austere and mannered, especially on Coetzee’s side. But it’s rewarding too, in a purely intellectual way. Stick with the dialectic and you’ll be repaid with moments of limpid insight, like outbreaks of sunshine on a frosty day.

The project’s premise is that Coetzee, as a novelist “sympathetically disposed” to psychoanalysis, wants to open a dialogue with Kurtz about the connections between Freudian therapy and fiction writing ... [read more]

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The wonder and the weirdness

In February of this year, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who practices medical writing as an art, published an essay announcing he is terminally ill. The cancer that cost him the sight of his right eye nine years ago has spread to his liver; he can now count his remaining time in months. The announcement was made with characteristic understatement (“my luck has run out”). It was characteristic, too, in its verve. Skipping self-pity, Sacks spoke bracingly of the time he has left. Resolving to live the rest of his life ecstatically, he made you resolve to live yours that way too.

On the Move, the loose and slightly stand-offish autobiography that looks destined to be his last non-posthumous work, is the book of a man who has already written his masterpieces ... [read more]

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unfunny clown

Shortly before going to trial, the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik assured a psychiatrist that he was an essentially respectable character. Leaving aside a “window of three hours” on July 22nd, 2011, Breivik explained, he had never behaved threateningly to anyone. Inside that window, Breivik detonated a van-bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to the small island of Ut√łya, where the youth wing of the Labour Party was holding its annual summer camp. There, using semi-automatic firearms equipped with laser sights, he slaughtered sixty-nine further victims, most of them teenagers. Then he surrendered, so he could inform the world why all this had been necessary, from a political point of view. When the police made him strip, to confirm he wasn’t wired with a bomb, he grinned and struck a bodybuilder’s pose in his underpants.  

The prospect of spending 500 pages in the company of such a man is not tantalizing ... [read more]