I’ve admired James Wood’s essays for a couple of decades. Serious Noticing collects 510 pages of Wood’s “greatest hits” in one handy volume. My favorite essay in this collection is “Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon.” Keith Moon was the talented drummer of The Who until he died in September of 1978 from an overdose of Heminevrin, a drug intended to treat or prevent symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Wood loves Keith Moon’s wackiness–which earned him the monicker “Moon the Loon”–and is moved to take up the drums himself as a kid.

Wood moves on from rock drummers to serious writers like Chekhov, Bellow, Tolstoy, Roth, Auster, Orwell, Austen, Cormac McCarthy, Sebald, Dostoevsky, “Elena Ferrante,” Virginia Woolf, and Marilynne Robinson among others. My impressions of Wood after reading these essays is that Wood seemingly has read just about everything these writers have ever published. Plenty of details and sharp analysis feature into Wood’s essays. If you’re in the mood for some intelligent literary criticism, Serious Noticing is the place to find it. GRADE: A



Fun stuff: homage to Keith Moon — 15

What Chekhov meant by life — 34

Serious noticing — 49

Saul Bellow’s comic style — 74

Anna Karenina and characterization — 91

Joseph Roth’s empire of signs — 109

Paul Auster’s shallowness — 129

Hysterical realism — 144

Bohumil Hrabal’s comic world — 164

George Orwell’s very English revolution — 179

Jane Austen’s heroic consciousness — 179

Cormac McCarthy’s the road — 207

Reality examined to the point of madness’: László Krasznahorkai — 240

Wounder and wounded — 254

On not going home — 270

Other side of silence: rereading W. G. Sebald — 294

Becoming them — 315

Don Quixote’s old and new testaments — 325

Dostoevsky’s god — 338

Helen Garner’s savage honesty — 358

All and the if: God and metaphor in Melville — 372

Elena Ferrante — 393

Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism — 407

Job existed: Primo Levi — 426

Marilynne Robinson — 447

Ismail Kadare — 458

Jenny Erpenbeck — 479

Packing my father-in-law’s library — 493


10 thoughts on “SERIOUS NOTICING: SELECTED ESSAYS 1997-2019 By James Wood

  1. Michael Padgett

    I’d guess that Wood is a bit weighty for pandemic reading, but I’ve been a NEW YORKER subscriber practically forever and a lot of his stuff appears there. He always has interesting things to say about virtually any subject. I do remember reading the essay on Keith Moon.

    1. george Post author

      Michael, after I read Wood’s essay on Keith Moon, I had to break out my CD of THE WHO’S GREATEST HITS and listen to Moon bang away!

  2. wolf

    A bit OT:
    I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker’s newsletter for many years and they often have interesting info.
    And the cartoons plus the Borowitz Report are really funny – though sometimes it’s gallows humour.
    So I’ll have to look for this author, thanks.

    1. george Post author

      Wolf, as Michael pointed out, James Wood’s essays appear in THE NEW YORKER on a regular basis. And, I like THE NEW YORKER cartoons, too!

  3. Patti Abbott

    I wonder if I could read a lot of this from the New Yorker archives. I am going to check. I have had a sub since I was 20.

    1. george Post author

      Patti, plenty of James Woods essays appear in THE NEW YORKER. I’m impressed that you’ve been such a loyal subscriber over the decades!

  4. Jeff Meyerson

    I see several people who interest me on the list – Chekhov, Orwell, Ferrante, etc. However, I prefer these essay collections when they are 250-300 pages. Usually, if the book is 500 pages, I will end up just skipping around to the people I am most interested in and leaving the rest unread.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, I’m guessing SERIOUS NOTICING might be a “summing up” collection for James Wood. Wood has been at the literary critic game for decades. These essays show Wood at the top of his game.

  5. Michael Padgett

    Not only is Wood an excellent literary critic, he’s married to a very fine novelist, Claire Messud.


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