Wood collects his best essays from two decades of his career, supplementing earlier work with autobiographical reflections from his book The Nearest Thing to Life and recent essays from The New Yorker on young writers of extraordinary promise.
Two voices vie in this book. There is the voice we recognize in the reviews: the professor, stately and composed, guiding the reader through forensically close readings of the text, pointing out fiction’s innovations and revolutions ... The other voice — pitched about half an octave higher, blunt, reedy, very winning — pops up in the essays ... The two voices mingling in this collection give a beautiful, moving sense of the stakes of criticism as Wood has practiced it, vigorously, without interruption for 30 years ... Wood writes as if enmeshed in the text itself; registering shifts in point of view and perspective with seismographic precision ... Little in 'sanitized' adult American life, where Wood is productive and content, seems to have the same kind of purchase as those bygone places and people, that bygone music. He does not tell us — he does not need to — where those vivifying details can still be found ('the poplar, the lilac and the roses'). 'To notice is to rescue, to redeem,' Wood writes. 'To save life from itself.'
In the unspooling sentences and paragraphs of the many fine and often seriously dandy essays... Wood shows himself a maestro of tone and inflection. His sustained close attention as he interrogates the writers he loves is genuinely something to behold. There is playfulness in this attention – Wood is drawn to droll comedy as the most reliable form of wisdom – but you would rarely conclude that he has let his instincts off the leash of his intellect ... Wood’s earlier essays are more sure of themselves, more eager to please, packed with the kind of aphoristic insights that might have undergraduates reaching for their highlighter pens ... Wood’s intent in these readings was often to elucidate those moments when fiction captures the mysteries of consciousness, when it performs that magic of escaping its creator’s bounds, and to revel in his ability to detect the wonderful illusion ... In later essays, mostly those written for the New Yorker, there is a more grounded and relaxed voice; a bit less desire to display fizzing erudition, a bit more concern for the messiness of emotional truth ... There is, as a thread through these pieces, and beyond them, a kind of spiritual quest in Wood’s writing...
James Wood, haters claim, is a hater ... In fact Wood’s talent for appreciation far outstrips his gift for denigration. Of the twenty-eight essays collected in Serious Noticing...only two are negative. And even when he is hating, Wood remains eager to discover something to admire ... Even in his hit pieces, Wood is a designated (and frequently endearing) enthusiast. He frowns over the fiction he censures like a disappointed father. His disapproval is only a correlate of his abiding love ... Serious Noticing is two parts pan and twenty-six parts panegyric ... What makes Wood such a formidable opponent? The most obvious answer is the crackling sensuousness of his prose. He writes unusually tactile criticism, thick with images you can almost reach out and grasp ... Even when Wood’s points are theoretical, his writing is novelistic ... Wood’s writing is lush, but a wire of rigor runs through it, and the exactitude of its argumentation stings. The results are as agile as they are inspired ... And there is more to admire. When Wood is vicious, he is funny. Little can compete with the exhilaration of his hatchet jobs or even his throwaway jabs ... Wood’s style is distinctive, but it is hard to generalize about his taste, and perhaps the best thing about him is that he reinvents his approach to accommodate the exigencies of each book he reviews. Though his judgments are always meticulously justified, they are also consistently unpredictable, for Wood is willing to meet each work on its own terms ... He has stained my vision indelibly, and I can pay him no greater tribute than to read him (and to ask you to read him) as generously, justly, and gorgeously as he taught me to read.