Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
James Wood’s How Fiction Works has topped the stack of bed side books that push me into slumber each night. His sentence-level analysis of novelistic discourse stunning discloses the secrets of consciousness in Henry James and others. Meanwhile, the retro typography, creamy paper, and fat margins take me back to my father’s books from graduate school. It is like a wine tasting for literature: we get measured quantities of the real thing, lovingly arranged, decanted and glossed by a sommelier of style. How Fiction Works is my chosen gift book for the season, taking the place of Maira Kalman’s reissue of The Elements of Style in last year’s queue.
This week’s New Yorker includes a brief Close Reading of Obama’s victory speech, penned by James Wood in a mood at once exultant and pensive. The essay carefully tracks Obama’s allusions to the speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King — true gifts of history, delivered by Obama, but unwrapped for us by Wood.
My favorite analysis, though, is Wood’s beautiful turn on the speech’s refrain, “Yes we can,” with which Obama closed his liturgical invocation of each epoch survived by the speech’s heroine, the centenarian Ann Nixon Cooper. Wood writes, “By attaching the phrase to the past tense, to achieved history, Obama stripped it of its bright futurity and invested it with a measure of uncertainty, as if intoning both ‘Yes we did’ and an implied ‘Yes we may.‘”
In other words, Wood reminds us that there is still a lot of work to be done. He also demonstrates that writing just might have a part to play in the transformations to come.