Eminent critic to delve into Bible, Bellow and more

James Wood will deliver the annual Mandel Lectures in the Humanities next week

James Wood, a leading cultural critic who writes for The New Yorker magazine and teaches at Harvard, will deliver this year’s Mandel Lectures in the Humanities, beginning on Monday, April 8.

The series of three lectures is organized around the theme of “Letters to a Young Writer” and will be delivered at 4:30 p.m. on April 8, 10 and 11 in the auditorium of the Mandel Center for the Humanities.

Wood, who is known for his wry wit as well as his literary acuity, says he will “dwell on the Bible – especially the Book of Job – on Chekhov, on a wonderful novel by the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald called "The Blue Flower." Plus Tolstoy, Camus, Beckett. Plus some stuff about music.”

And that’s just the first day.

There also will be a lunch symposium at 12:30 p.m. on April 9 in the Mandel Center reading room, at which Wood will lead a discussion of Saul Bellow’s classic short novel “Seize the Day.” Copies of the book are available free to participants; to get a copy, contact Mangok Bol at the Mandel Center reception desk.

The lectures, which are supported by a grant from the Mandel Foundation, are free and open to the public. After they are completed, they will be published as a book by Brandeis University Press.

Professor of History Michael Willrich, who is acting director of the humanities center this year, says the idea of the lecture series “is to bring in a distinguished humanist to essentially spend a week in residence at Brandeis and feed our heads, get us thinking about the state of the humanities.”

The lectures will be “the peak of the year’s programming at the center,” he said, the culmination of a program that has included team-taught courses, faculty and graduate student workshops, public lectures, musical performances and a faculty grants competition.

Wood was at the top of the list of possible lecturers drawn up by the humanities steering committee, Willrich said, because he is “a marvelous writer and a person of strong ideas and opinions about what literature can and should be. That’s what criticism is meant to be – serious engagement with the work.”

Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian, in London, from 1992 to 1995, and a senior editor at the New Republic from 1995 to 2007. His critical essays have been collected in two volumes, “The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief” and “The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.” He is also the author of a novel, “The Book Against God,” a study of technique in the novel, “How Fiction Works” and, most recently, “The Fun Stuff and Other Essays.”

Wood lives in the Boston area and is professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard.

[Read an interview with James Wood in the Harvard Gazette.]


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