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Book Corner                                                                     September 10, 2008

Fiction and Fact: Two Reviews for Autumn Reading
Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl         

How Fiction Works
James Wood

James Wood, is a writer for The New Yorker magazine and teaches English and American literature at Harvard.  This year he has written a work called How Fiction Works.  The work is a review of the development of the genre of the novel in both Britain and America.  What appealed to me about this work is that I read it from the perspective of an English major now turned homiletician.    

Just as Wood talks about character, plot and details, so must the preacher give significant heed to these very elements in preparing a sermon.  Wood’s work is ‘biased’ in the sense of which novelists he likes better than others.  But then this is true for any novel reader worth his or her fictional saltiness. 

Wood’s close analysis and definitions of basic novelistic elements are worth reading. 

Describing the elusive notion of what a ‘character’ is (he also examines King David in this respect) he says:  “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism:  it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.  And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism.  There is no such thing as a ‘novelistic character.’  There are just thousands of different types of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes.” (106) 

One concept he defines is “thisness” in relationship to the issue of detail.  “How would we know when a detail seems really true?  What guides us?  The medieval theologian Duns Scotus gave the name of “thisness” (haecceitas) to individuating form…By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of plausibility, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” (166-167).

If you love language and its mysteries, this work is sure to profoundly satisfy!



Sacred: Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam
By John Reeves, ed.

Bright colors, exquisite handiwork, entwined histories – these describe the richly illustrated and carefully worked narratives of Sacred:  Books of the Three Faiths:  Judaism, Christianity, Islam. (Edited by John Reeves. Published for the British Library:  London, 2007).  This work accompanies a major exhibition of Abrahamic faith family sacred scriptures for the British Museum in 2007. 

One example of the richness of detail in this work is this commentary excerpt on an eleventh or twelfth century Qur’an:  “Eastern kufic script, first developed by the Persians, is characterized by long upright strokes and short strokes inclining to the left…The appearance of the eastern kufic coincided with the change from parchment to paper in the Islamic Near East…”(90).

This book could easily grace a private or church library and serve well to illustrate any instruction on the history of manuscripts of varying sacred scriptures.  Truly a beautifully wrought work!