I had no intention of finding much fault as I dug into James Wood’s career retrospective Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1997–2019, which gathers what must be Wood’s favorite pieces from previous books collecting his magazine writing—the best of the best.1 Among The New Yorker’s back-of-the-book crew, my preferences run to Anthony Lane and Louis Menand, but over the years I’ve found Wood to be sound enough. Two of his pieces for that magazine are among the best I’ve come across in its pages. One (reprinted as the opener of this volume) relates how, as a dutiful piano student and daily choir singer in his...


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