The book I was expecting was something closer to a confessional memoir: a critic at the height of an illustrious career finally admitting which of his assumptions and judgments had been wrong ... Now, such a confession does shadow The Real Work and in fact may be its secret subject. But its explicit subject is more wayward and more ordinarily charming: how it might be possible to derive a general formula for mastery from a series of learning scenarios ... The result is a digressive, improvised collage of seemingly unrelated forms of expertise, and some of its pleasures are Gopnik’s excursions into professional jargon — he takes his title from magicians’ shoptalk — and techniques ... The book’s final axiom is its most profound, all the more so for also being unexpected ... The Real Work may not seem like a critic’s book about art, but its conclusion hints at a way of resolving the apparent tension between critics and artists. After all, each needs the other — in the moment of performance.
That phrase, 'the real work,' comes from Gopnik’s fascinating glimpse into the world of magic, a trade in which the normal obscurities of skill acquisition are rendered even more opaque ... Works in this book, a lot of the time, because of the fluidity and incision of his prose, his ranging interest and knowledge, his capacity for deploying profound koans with casual verve.
Via memoir, analysis and criticism he assembles a celebration of the flaws that make us human ... Gopnik is at his most moving when addressing the limited time we have on Earth; the roughly established number of heartbeats we are given to achieve whatever means most to us.