How Literature Saved My Life


Blending confessional criticism and cultural autobiography, David Shields explores the power of literature to make life survivable, maybe even endurable. Evoking his deeply divided personality, his character flaws, his woes, his serious despair, he wants "literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this—which is what makes it essential." This is a captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original book about the essential acts of ...

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Blending confessional criticism and cultural autobiography, David Shields explores the power of literature to make life survivable, maybe even endurable. Evoking his deeply divided personality, his character flaws, his woes, his serious despair, he wants "literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this—which is what makes it essential." This is a captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original book about the essential acts of reading and writing.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Title notwithstanding, Shields (Reality Hunger) has composed not a paean to the glories of narrative or language, but a work that sits somewhere between essay and memoir, resisting easy expectations. Though it is about books, Shields's focus (if it can be called focused at all) is squarely on the contradictions and impasses inherent to literature and language. He comes at his topic askance. Winding through personal anecdotes, some literary criticism, and yes, some praise of beloved texts, the short passages that make up the book sometimes hang together in a traditional rising-action manner and other times they're intentionally erratic. The book teaches the reader how to read it and the result is a slow but intriguing accrual of ideas, which ends up feeling simultaneously irksome and captivating as well as truer than a more straightforward telling might have been. This is both the work's strength and raison d'etre. Shields, as narrator, comes off as terrifically self-involved, extremely well-read, and altogether fascinating. We seem to know him pretty well by the end—we've been tussling with him all along—even though at the same time we understand how compromised this knowing must be. We are saved and not; the literature doesn't become transcendent, just the best tool available. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
Essayist and fiction writer Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 2010, etc.) turns quotation, memory, anecdotes and considerations of film, literature, love and death into a collage that enables introspection. The author, who stuttered throughout childhood, initially regarded writing as an ideal outlet; now, in his mid-50s, he writes "to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else," he has connected with his readers. With a frequently self-deprecating yet engaging tone, the author employs the act of accrual in hopes of guarding against "human loneliness," and in doing so, creates a personal, modern version of the medieval commonplace book. For the bibliophile, references to authors such as Ben Lerner, E.M. Cioran, Jonathan Safran Foer, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso and David Foster Wallace, among others, will appeal as voices intersecting on the page. For fellow creative-writing practitioners, how Shield fashions his own anxieties and persona into brief essays provides an alternative model for writing on selfhood, revealing the author's struggle in oblique ways. Concerned as much with methods of construction and questions of genre as with subject, Shields meters out nuggets of revelation amid explications of both classical and popular subjects, from Prometheus to Spider-Man. The author's circuitous approach may frustrate some readers. However, it is the sometimes-failed attempts to articulate the ways in which "life and art have always been everything" to him that prove fascinating. The book defies easy categorization (as have others of Shields' works): It is both a paean to the power of language and a confrontation with the knowledge that literature can't, after all, fulfill deeper existential needs. A work of contradictions, subversions, depression, humor and singular awareness; Shields is at his finest when culling the work of others to arrive at his own well-timed, often heartbreaking lines.
From the Publisher

“Here is a mind on fire, a writer at war with the page. . . . These rigorous, high-octane, exhaustive yet taut ruminations on ambivalence, love, melancholy, and mortality are like an arrow laced with crack to the brain. [Shields’] gun-to-the-head prose explicates an all-consuming passion for reading, writing, and ‘the redemptive grace of human consciousness itself.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
“In this wonderful, vastly entertaining book, he weaves together literary criticism, quotations, and his own fragmentary recollections to illustrate, in form and content, how art—real art, the kind that engages and reflects the world around it—has made his life meaningful as both creator and beholder. Shields is an elegant, charming, and very funny writer. . . . Although his subject is himself, his instructions should prove useful—inspiring even—to all readers and writers.”
The Boston Globe
“Shields is a stunning writer. Within this book lies significant passion and revelation. . . . What makes for an amazing reading experience is the piecing together an argument from the fragments. . . . The guy is a maestro.”
The Huffington Post
“Shields has an uncanny ability to tap into the short attention span of modern culture and turn it into something positive. . . . How Literature Saved My Life presents a way forward for literature in new forms.”
The A.V. Club
“Eminently readable and surprisingly life-affirming. . . . Mr. Shields has written a great book, and one which matters. . . . Uncompromisingly intelligent, blisteringly forthright, and eschewing convention at every turn. . . . Mr. Shields is one engaging writer. His enthusiasm is contagious. He cares, deeply, about his subject.”
New York Journal of Books
“There is no more interesting writer at this precise moment than David Shields. I would call three of his books among the most important we’ve seen in the last 15 years: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and now this. His nonfiction books are as much galvanizing electrical fields as those of David Foster Wallace were.”
—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News, Editor’s Choice
“Concise, fearless, urgent. A soulful writer, a skillful storyteller, and a man on the hunt for the Exquisite. Shields is, in a writerly sense, as brave as they come. A giant, thrilling ride.”
“Shields has composed not a paean to the glories of narrative or language, but a work that sits somewhere between essay and memoir, resisting easy expectations. . . . altogether fascinating.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Quintessential genre-defying Shields. His writing gives you [a] sense of vertigo. It’s energizing and weird, and it works.”
The Village Voice
“Shields’s ideas about literature come from a place of deep love; he’s not trying to destroy but rebuild what is already broken.”
“I’m grateful for How Literature Saved My Life because the book has made me think again—and for the first time in a while—‘Well, what is it we do when we read?’ It’s a damned annoying question, but it needs to be asked now and then, and Shields has asked it in a way I find resonant and moving.”
—Andre Alexis, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Thoroughly rewarding.”
London Evening Standard
“Smart, self-deprecating, and funny.”
The Plain Dealer
“What else are you looking for that’s as real and interesting as another intelligent, articulate, bibliophilic human’s personal revelations?”
Austin Chronicle
“[One of] our most genial essayists. . . . You read [Shields] for the zip of his consciousness.”
Chicago Tribune
“An invigorating polemicist, as well as a subtle and amusing memoirist.”
The New Statesman (UK)
“Both a boldly written love note to that most precious of subjects, and David Shields’s latest statute in his quest for ‘art with a visible string to the world.’”
HTML Giant
“What makes us read and write when it is harder than ever to ‘only connect’? Examining our relationships with books.”
Salon, Editor’s Pick
“We can always count on Shields to force us to probe the edges of the way we think about, read, and even write literature and criticism of any kind.”
Flavorwire, One of Ten Books That Could Save Your Life and One of the Most Anticipated Books of 2013

The Barnes & Noble Review

A generation from now, when we pick up our flex-tablets or digi- goggles or whatever and read about literature at the turn of the twenty- first century, there's a decent chance we'll see it referred to as the David Shields era. In his 2008 book, Reality Hunger, the novelist delivered a signature statement on exhausted "realist" fiction, overly manicured narratives, and the authenticity of "truthiness." And he did it in audacious fashion, constructing the book out of borrowed scraps that he freely claimed as his own because, well, what was authorship anyway? Renata Adler, Jonathan Lethem, W. G. Sebald, and other metafictionists had tinkered with these notions, but Reality Hunger cannily compressed them, giving them a loose but coherent critical form.

Shields's book captured the imagination of not just literary readers but a lot of people who distrusted the idea of "facts" — how many literary critic/small-press novelists score segments on Colbert? There was a flaw in Reality Hunger, though, suggested in its subtitle: It is "a manifesto," which is the name you give a book when you're angry enough about something to agitate about it at length but haven't marshaled the evidence to back it up. To that end, Shields's refreshing, bemusing, at times exasperating follow-up, How Literature Saved My Life, could have easily been titled Reality Hunger: A Defense. He's clearly heartened by the enthusiasm for his ideas, and here he's eager to show how they play out without sacrificing the digression, self-awareness, and immediacy he privileges in the first place.

What does Shields want out of literature, exactly? "I want to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else, I know someone — I've gotten to this other person." "I want the writer to be trying hard to figure something out." "I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive." In a word, candor — art without artifice. You'll note the lack of fist-pounding in those sentences: As agitators go, Shields is so genial and passionate — his frustration with what he's called the "furniture" that clutters the conventional novel runs bone deep — that it's easy to want to meet him halfway. With this book, as with Reality Hunger, you come away wondering why so many novelists busy themselves building their scrims of metaphor, walls of plot, barricades of style.

Better, Shields has some recommendations. Tucked in the center of How Literature Saved My Life is list of fifty-five works that have inspired him, topped (alphabetically and otherwise), by Adler, whose 1976 novel, Speedboat, so exemplifies the cracked storylines and integration of the personal that he's read it two dozen times and copied it out twice. Beyond Adler, there are classics of digression (Moby-Dick), books that rip the masks off fiction writers (John Cheever's Journals), essayists-as-confessors (Geoff Dyer, Terry Castle), and novels that blur the line between fiction and autobiography (Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station).

But How Literature Saved My Life isn't exclusively a casebook of next-generation authorship; it is also a book that strives to be in itself the kind of literature it argues for. Shields details his twentysomething lusts, his stutter, his marriage, and his odd reading habits (he'll sometimes read a book backward), all woven around a sadness that he hopes literature can yank him out of but so rarely does. These confessions often have an urgency that reflect his passion for the personal and affirm that his search for it is more than a hobby. "Am I missing the narrative gene?" he asks, frustrated with himself. But as with any old-fashioned memoirist, the line between openness and self- martyring can get a little shaky. "Some people seemed to think I was the Antichrist because I didn't genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there's an oxymoron if ever there was one)," he writes, and he consistently displays an impatience with art that lacks a "visible string to the world." It's revealing that many of the novels he celebrates, from Speedboat to Atocha Station to Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate, barely crack 200 pages.

What Shields has been lobbying for is a sex-on-the-first-date abandon in literature — writing that's intimate, a little emotionally arrogant, and in a hurry. But in that sense, How Literature Saved My Life sometimes feels less like an argument for the future of literature than a defense of a literature of a particular type: The stories Shields admires most are the cris de coeur about how often storytelling falls short. That can be an entertaining, illuminating ride to go on, but it's just one ride. "I love that feeling of being caught between floors of a difficult-to-define department store," Shields writes But that's a troublesome metaphor for literature: If you're stuck between floors, don't you eventually want out?

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307961525
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/5/2013
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

David Shields is the author of thirteen previous books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award). He has published essays and stories in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Yale Review, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

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Read an Excerpt


All criticism is a form of autobiography.
I’ve never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, since we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the next generation. Both of us went to Brown, have lived in Spain, are Jewish. I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and dreamier fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions
Ben’s most recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station, is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references to his childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of John Ashbery’s poetry (which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist parents (his mother is the feminist writer Harriet Lerner). I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as if he were Ben. Ben won’t mind!
His book—as what serious book is not?—is born of genuine despair. Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal.
Leaving the Atocha Station “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling,” a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station—to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another’s perspective, imagining “I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down.” He wants to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I. When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I mostly preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me—why I’m so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor—but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.
What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? I’ve lifted these two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem: he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a bottomlessly rich metaphor for all miscommunication. An unfortunate fact about stuttering—the subject of my autobiographical novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now—is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property, not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.
About the 2004 Madrid bombings—three of the bombs exploded in the Atocha Station—Ben says, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” He wonders if he’ll be the only American in history who visits Granada without seeing the Alhambra. While Spain is voting, he’s checking email. Easy enough to judge him. Harder to acknowledge the near universality of such lassitude. In the fall of 1974 I left the Bay Area to go to college in Providence, Rhode Island, which I imagined as, quite literally, Providence—a heavenly city populated by seraphic souls. I imagined Rhode Island as a literal island, the exotic edge of the eastern coast. And I saw Brown as an enclosed, paradisiacal space in which strong boys played rugby on fields of snow, then read Ruskin by gaslight in marble libraries too old to close, and girls with thick dark hair, good bodies, and great minds talked about Goethe (which I thought was pronounced “Goeth”) at breakfast. The first month of my first semester, black students occupied the administration building and demanded increases in black student enrollment and financial aid. These seemed to me laudable goals, so I went over to become part of the picket line outside the building and marched in a circle, chanting, for a few minutes, but the whole event felt like a really weak imitation of all the demonstrations I’d been going to since I was six years old, and I wanted to get away from groups and the West Coast and my former milieu for a while. A few people from my dorm were tossing around a Frisbee on the back side of the green. I left the picket line to go join them.
If Ben cares about “the arts,” it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf: “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He’s “unworthy.” Profundity is “unavailable from within the damaged life.” And yet he’s willing to say, somewhat begrudgingly, that Ashbery is a great poet: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. It is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it./You miss it, it misses you./You miss each other.’ ”
This is a lot. Still, is that the best art can do now—be a holding tank/reflecting pool for lostness? Maybe, maybe. Life’s white machine. The words are written under water. Ben has nothing to say and is saying it into a tiny phone. Why was he born between mirrors? Twentythree years older than he is, I’m in exactly the same mess. The question I want to ask, in the book that follows: Do I have a way out?

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