The Thing about Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead

( 48 )

Overview

Mesmerized and somewhat unnerved by his 97-year-old father's vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an original investigation of our flesh-and-blood existence, our mortal being.Weaving together personal anecdote, biological fact, philosophical doubt, cultural criticism, and the wisdom of an eclectic range of writers and thinkers—from Lucretius to Woody Allen—Shields expertly renders both a hilarious family portrait and a truly resonant meditation on mortality.The Thing About Life provokes us to ...

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Overview

Mesmerized and somewhat unnerved by his 97-year-old father's vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an original investigation of our flesh-and-blood existence, our mortal being.Weaving together personal anecdote, biological fact, philosophical doubt, cultural criticism, and the wisdom of an eclectic range of writers and thinkers—from Lucretius to Woody Allen—Shields expertly renders both a hilarious family portrait and a truly resonant meditation on mortality.The Thing About Life provokes us to contemplate the brevity and radiance of our own sojourn on earth and challenges us to rearrange our thinking in crucial and unexpected ways.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer.” —Stephen Bates, The Wall Street Journal “Mix equal parts of anatomy and autobiography, science and self-disclosure, physiology and family history; shake, stir, add dashes of miscellany, pinches of borrowed wisdom, simmer over a low-grade fever of mortality, and a terrible beauty of a book is born.” —Thomas Lynch, The Boston Globe“An edifying, wise, unclassifiable mixture of filial love and Oedipal rage.” —Lev Grossman, Time“A primer on aging and death for those who take theirs without the sugar. . . . There's a comfort to be found in this sober investigation of mortality, in Shields's clear-eyed look at the ways in which we come undone.” —Benjamin Alsup, Esquire“Enthralling . . . Fascinating . . . Ultimately, the humanity of Shields’ interior and exterior exploration is what makes The Thing About Life—and life itself—worthwhile.” —Meredith Maran, The San Francisco Chronicle “Shields undergoes his midlife crisis and comes out the other side–more accessible than ever before, more tender, ‘nicer.’ And yet The Thing About Life adroitly sidesteps sentimentality–very hard to do when the core of it is a son’s love for his cranky, tenacious, irascible, geriatric, Jewish father. I love this book.”—David Guterson“[An] informative and occasionally unsettling meditation on [Shields’s] own aging body and his [97-year-old] nonagenarian father’s seemingly endless vigor and strength . . . He writes with great candor about the vitality of his father. . . Also woven into the text are clever quotes on matters corporeal from the likes of Wordsworth, Wittgenstein, Woody Allen, and Martha Graham. Shields’s memoir is a sobering, at times poignant, reminder that none of us gets out of this life alive.”—Booklist“David Shields has accomplished something here so pure and wide in its implications that I think of it almost as a secular, unsentimental Kahlil Gibran: a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth.” —Jonathan Lethem“It’s a bold writer who dares to tackle head-on the subject of what it means to be human–something that David Shields does with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness, humor, and inexhaustible curiosity.” —Jonathan Raban“The Thing About Life grabbed me from the start. It’s extremely compelling, gorgeous in many places.  I loved it. And I wish I had written it.”—Lauren Slater
School Library Journal

If you're comfortable with your own mortality, you'll enjoy the reflections offered by Shields on life (his own and that of his 97-year-old father) and death. Award-winning author Shields (English, Univ. of Washington; Dead Languages) explores the human experience from infancy to death and beyond, briefly addressing the notion of human immortality. The anecdotes he shares about his own life are vivid, engaging, and, above all, honest. He admits, for example, that his father's determination to live fully (and forever) generates in him feelings of both love and hate. Interspersed with his own story are numerous startling facts about the human condition, e.g., that we will take approximately 850,000,000 breaths in a lifetime and that the brain of a 90-year-old is about the same size as that of a three-year-old. In addition, Shields offers dozens of memorable quotations from sources ranging from Sibelius and John Wayne to Bertrand Russell and Neil Young. Shields compels readers to examine the mysteries of life and death, but if thoughts of "the end" depress you, take solace in the knowledge that Shields's book also comes to an end. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/1/07.]
—Anthony Pucci

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307387967
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 512,202
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David Shields is the author of eight previous books, including Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (winner of the PEN/Revson Award), and Dead Languages: A Novel (winner of a PEN/Syndicated Fiction award). A senior editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in dozens of periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Believer. He teaches at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

Letter to My Father

Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.

This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together–especially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.

This is my research; this is what I now know: the brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality, human beings as bare, forked animals, the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else’s body as well.

Accept death, I always seem to be saying.

Accept life, is his entirely understandable reply.

Why am I half in love with easeful death? I just turned 51. As Martin Amis has said, “Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you’re switching from saying ‘Hi’ to saying ‘Bye.’ And it’s a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death’s so apparent now, and it wasn’t apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn’t a reality.” So, too, for myself, being the father of an annoyingly vital 14-year-old girl only deepens these feelings. I’m no longer athletic (really bad back–more on this later). Natalie is. After a soccer game this season, a parent of one of the players on the other team came up to her and said, “Turn pro.”

Why, at 97, is my father so devoted to longevity per se, to sheer survival? He is–to me–cussedly, maddeningly alive and interesting, but I also don’t want to romanticize him. He’s life force as life machine–exhausting and exhaustive. Rest in peace? Hard to imagine.

Mark Harris, trying to explain why he thought Saul Bellow was a better writer than any of his contemporaries, said Bellow was simply more alive than anyone else, and there’s something of that in my father. D. H. Lawrence was said to have lived as if he were a man without skin. That, too, is my father: I keep on urging him to don skin, and he keeps declining.

I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in an early shroud? He’s strong and he’s weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow.

Our Birth Is Nothing But Our Death Begun

A fetus doesn't sit passively in its mother's womb and wait to be fed. Its placenta aggressively sprouts blood vessels that invade its mother's tissues to extract nutrients. A mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it. Pregnancy is, as the evolutionary biologist David Haig says, a tug of war: each side pulls hard; the flag tied to the middle of the rope barely moves. Existence is warfare.

Human beings have existed for 250,000 years; during that time, 90 billion individuals have lived and died. You're one of 6.5 billion people now on the planet, and 99.9 percent of your genes are the same as everyone else's. The difference is in the remaining 0.1 percent—one nucleotide base in every 1,000.

You're born with 350 bones (long, short, flat, and irregular); as you grow, the bones fuse together: an adult's body has 206 bones. Approximately 70 percent of your body weight is water—which is about the same percentage of the earth's surface that is water.

A newborn baby, whose average heart rate is 120 beats per minute, makes the transition from a comfortable, fluid-filled environment to a cold, air-filled one by creating a suction 50 times stronger than the average adult breath. I was a breech birth, the danger of which is that the head (in this case, my head) comes out last, which dramatically increases the possibility that the umbilical cord will get wrapped around the neck (in this case, my neck). I entered the world feet first, then remained in the hospital an extra week to get a little R & R in a warm incubator that my father guarded like a goalie whenever anyone came within striking distance. If I laid still for more than a few minutes, my father reportedly pounded on the glass dome. I wasn't dead, Dad. I was only sleeping. All my life I've pretended to seek a cold, air-filled environment (danger), but really what I'm drawn to is that comfortable, fluid-filled environment (safety).

I remember once being complimented by my mother for not entering a playground when the gate was locked and my father being disgusted that I hadn't climbed the fence. As a wide receiver, I would run intricate patterns, then stand all alone in the middle of the field, waving my hands, calling for the ball. I never dropped a pass, but when I was hit hard, I would typically tighten up and fumble. I was the best softball player in the neighborhood, but as we grew older, we began to play overhand, fast-pitch hardball, and I started flinching. Trying to beat out a ground ball, I would always slow down so that the throw to first base would arrive ahead of me and I'd avoid getting hit in the head with a wild toss. Batting, I was afraid of getting hit with the pitch; fielding, I dreaded bad hops off the rocky infield. I could run 100 yards in 10.8 seconds, but I had very long legs and the track coach insisted that I run high hurdles; I stutter-stepped before each hurdle to make sure I cleared it and came in last. Having never learned to dive, I jumped in the pool feet first. The swimming instructor dragged me to the edge of the diving board, positioned my arms and legs, held me in the air for a second, then dropped me into the pool. At the last instant, I turned my face, and water broke my fall like a bed of electric needles. What was I scared of? Why have I always been so afraid of getting hurt?

In the Bhagavad Gita, the human body is defined as a wound with nine openings.

A newborn baby is, objectively, no beauty. The fat pads that will fill out the cheeks are missing. The jaws are unsupported by teeth. Hair, if there is any, is often so fine as to make the baby (especially Caucasian babies) appear bald. Cheesy material—called vernix caseosa—covers the body, providing a protective dressing for the skin, which is reddened, moist, and deeply creased. Swelling formed by pressure during the passage through the birth canal may have temporarily deformed the nose, caused one or both eyes to swell up, or elongated the head into a strange shape. The skull is incompletely formed: in some places, the bones haven't fully joined together, leaving the brain covered only by soft tissue. External genitalia in both sexes are disproportionately larger because of stimulation by the mother's hormones. For the same reason, the baby's breasts may be somewhat enlarged and secrete a watery discharge called "witch's milk." The irises are pale blue; true eye color develops later. The head is very large in proportion to the body, and the neck can't support it, while the buttocks are tiny.

The average baby weighs 7 1/4 pounds and is 21 inches long. Newborns lose 5 to 8 percent of their birth weight in the first few days of life—owing, mainly, to water loss. They can hear little during the first 24 hours until air enters the eustachian tubes. They miss the womb and resent any stimulus. They will suck anything placed in or near their mouth. Their eyes wander and cross. Their body temperature is erratic, and their breathing is often irregular.

At 1 month, a baby can wobble its head and practice flexing its arms and legs. At 2 months, it can face straight ahead while lying on its back. On its stomach, it can lift its head about 45 degrees. At 3 months, a baby's neck muscles are strong enough to support its head for a second or two.

Babies are born with brains 25 percent of adult size, because the mechanics of walking upright impose a constraint on the size of the mother's pelvis. The channel through which the baby is born can't get any bigger. The baby's brain quickly makes up for that initial constraint: by age 1, the brain is 75 percent of adult size.

Infants have accurate hearing up to 40,000 cycles per second and may wince at a dog whistle that adults, who can't register sounds above 20,000 cycles per second, don't even notice. Your ear contains sensory hair cells, which turn mechanical fluid energy inside the cochlea into electrical signals that can be picked up by nerve cells; these electrical signals are delivered to the brain and allow you to hear. Beginning at puberty, these hair cells begin to disappear, decreasing your ability to hear specific frequencies; higher tones are the first to go.

A newborn's hands tend to be held closed, but if the area between the thumb and forefinger is stroked, the hand clenches it and holds on with sufficient strength to support the baby's weight if both hands are grasping. This innate "grasp reflex" serves no purpose in the human infant but was crucial in the last prehuman phase of evolution when the infant had to cling to its mother's hair.

My father reminds me that according to Midrash—the ever-evolving commentary upon the Hebrew scriptures—when you arrive in the world as a baby, your hands are clenched, as though to say, "Everything is mine. I will inherit it all." When you depart from the world, your hands are open, as though to say, "I have acquired nothing from the world."

If a baby is dropped, an immediate change from the usual curled posture occurs, as all four extremities are flung out in extension. The "startle reflex," or "embrace reflex," probably once served to help a simian mother catch a falling infant by causing it to spread out as fully as possible.

When Natalie was born, I cried, and my wife, Laurie, didn't—too busy. One minute, we were in the hospital room, holding hands and reading magazines, and the next, Laurie looked at me, with a commanding seriousness I'd never seen in her before, and said, "Put down the magazine." Natalie emerged, smacking her lips, and I asked the nurse to reassure me that this didn't indicate diabetes (I'd been reading too many parent-to-be manuals). I vowed I would never again think a trivial or stupid or selfish thought; this exalted state didn't last, but still . . .

The Kogi Indians believe that when an infant begins life, it knows only three things: mother, night, and water.

Francis Thompson wrote, "For we are born in other's pain, / And perish in our own." Edward Young wrote, "Our birth is nothing but our death begun." Francis Bacon: "What then remains, but that we still should cry / Not to be born, or being born, to die?" The first sentence of Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory is: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

Much mentioned but rarely discussed: the tissue-thin separation between existence and non-. In 1919, at age 9, my father and his friends were crossing train tracks in Brooklyn when my father, last in line, stepped directly on the third rail, which transformed him from a happy vertical child into a horizontal conductor of electric current. The train came rattling down the tracks toward Milton Shildcrout, who, lying flat on his back, was powerless to prevent his own self-induced electrocution. (When I asked my father why he changed his name, he said that his WWII sergeant "had trouble reading words of more than two syllables printed in the daily camp bulletin; he also had trouble correctly pronouncing what he described as 'those god-awful New Yawk names.' He said, in his thick-as-molasses Southern accent, 'That name of yours, Corporal, is so danged long it wouldn't fit on a tombstone just in case ya step on one of Tojo's bullets when we go overseas. You should shorten it to something a grown man like me can pronounce. From now on, I'm going to call you Shieldsy.' A few weeks later, Sergeant Hill shortened it to Shields. And Shields it was for the 36 months I was assigned to the 164th Quartermaster Company. I got used to Shields and, when I returned from the war, had it changed.")

I wouldn't be here today, typing this sentence, if someone named Big Abe, a 17-year-old wrestler who wore black shirts and a purple hat, hadn't slid a long piece of dry wood between galvanized little Milt and the third rail, flipping him high into the air only seconds before the train passed. My father was bruised about the elbows and knees and, later in summer, was a near-corpse as flesh turned red, turned pink, turned black, and peeled away to lean white bone. Toenails and fingernails crumbled, and what few hairs he had on his body were shed until Miltie himself had nearly vanished. His father sued Long Island Rail Road for $100, which supposedly paid—no more, no less—for the doctor's visits once a week to check for infection.

Decline and Fall (i)

All mammals age; the only animals that don't age are some of the more primitive ones: sharks, alligators, Galapagos tortoises. There are different theories as to why humans age at the rate they do: aging is genetically controlled (maladapted individuals die out and well-adapted ones persevere); the rate of aging within each species has developed for the good of each species; an entropy-producing agent disrupts cells; smaller mammals tend to have high metabolic rates and die at an earlier age than larger mammals do; specific endocrine or immune systems are particularly vulnerable and accelerate dysfunction for the whole organism; errors in DNA transcription lead to genetic errors that accelerate death. All of these theories are disputed: no one knows why we age.

Schopenhauer said, "Just as we know our walking to be only a constantly prevented falling, so is the life of our body only a constantly prevented dying, an ever-deferred death." (Dad: "Why would a supposedly wise man want to think this way?")

"As we get older," the British poet Henry Reed helpfully observed, "we do not get any younger."

On average, infants sleep 20 hours a day, 1-year-olds sleep 13 hours a day, teenagers sleep 9 hours, 40-year-olds sleep 7 hours, 50-year-olds sleep 6 hours, and people 65 and older sleep 5 hours. As you get older, you spend more time lying awake at night and, once asleep, you're much more easily aroused. The production of melatonin, which regulates the sleep cycle, is reduced with age, which is one of the reasons why older people experience more insomnia. By age 65, an unbroken night of sleep is rare; 20 percent of the night consists of lying awake. As I constantly have to remind my now light-sleeping father, people ages 73 to 92 awake, on average, 21 times a night owing to disordered breathing.

An infant breathes 40 to 60 times a minute; a 5-year-old, 24 to 26 times; an adolescent, 20 to 22 times; an adult (beginning at age 25), 16 times. Over the course of your life, you're likely to take about 850 million breaths.

As a mammal, you get "milk teeth" by the end of your first year, then a second set that emerges as you leave infancy. When children start school, most of them have all of their baby teeth, which they'll lose before they're 12. By 13, most children have acquired all of their permanent teeth except their wisdom teeth. The third molars, or "wisdom teeth," usually emerge between ages 20 and 21; their roots mature between ages 18 and 25. As you age, your plaque builds up, your gums retreat, your teeth wear down, and you have more cavities and periodontal disease. The last few years, as my father's gums have shrunk, bone has rubbed up against his dentures, causing pain whenever he chews.

Children's fingernails grow one millimeter a week. Toenails grow one-quarter as fast as fingernails—one millimeter a month. Pianists' and typists' fingernails grow faster than others'. Fingernail growth is fastest in November, slowest in July, and less rapid at night. The first and fifth digits grow more slowly; in severe cold weather, fingernails grow more slowly. From age 30 until 80, fingernail growth slows by 50 percent. Contrary to myth, Dad, your nails and hair don't keep growing after you die.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Letter to My Father xv

Infancy and Childhood

Our Birth Is Nothing but Our Death Begun 3

Decline and Fall (i) 9

Boys vs. Girls(i 12

Origins 14

Paradise, Soon Lost 19

News Flash: We Are Animals 23

Motherhood 27

The Actuarial Prime of Life, or Why Children Don't Like Spicy Food 29

Sex and Death (i) 32

Hoop Dream (ii) 34

Bloodline to Star Power (i) 37

Adolescence

Rattlesnake Lake 43

Boys vs. Girls(ii) 49

Why Lionesses Prefer Dark Brunettes, or Why Both Men and Women Are Attracted to Deep Voices 53

Superheroes 59

Hoop Dreams (iv and v) 66

Dying Just a Little 71

Ye Olde Mind-Body Problem 78

Sex and Death (ii) 81

Adulthood and Middle Age

Decline and Fall (ii) 87

Bloodline to Star Power(ii) 98

Boys vs. Girls (iii) 102

Sex Changes (Everything) 104

Memento Mori 108

The Trouble with Being Food 111

Everything I Know I've Learned from My Bad Back 114

Notes on the Local Swimming Hole 121

Sex and Death (iii) 124

Hoop Dream (viii) 135

Old Age and Death

Decline and Fall (iii) 139

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead 151

Boys vs. Girls (iv) 160

Chronicle of Death Foretold 164

Death Is the Mother of Beauty 173

Life Is That Which Gives Meaning to Life 176

How to Live Forever (i) 181

How to Live Forever (ii) 189

Last Words 194

Bloodline to Star Power (iii) 200

Sex and Death (iv) 205

The Story Told One Last Time, from Beginning to End 211

Exit Interviews 214

Notes for Eulogy for My Father 218

Permissions Acknowledgments 227

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Reading Group Guide

1. The book begins with this sentence: “Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.” Do you see this book as a battle between David Shields and his father? If so, what are they arguing about, and who wins in the end?

2. Shields emphasizes the idea that people should face the bare facts of life, including our inevitable decline and death. However, he does not find his own unflinching investigation of the limits of our mortality upsetting. How does his perspective enable him to incorporate but move beyond gloom? How does his father's perspective differ?

3. The book is a mixture of anecdotes from various stages of David Shields's life and his father's life. In addition, the reader is given dozens of quotations, and entire sections that are focused on scientific data about the aging process. What holds all of these different forms of writing together? What did you think of this structure for the book?

4. The book charts the various stages of life. Do any parts of this aging process, as described in the book, frighten you or make you feel other emotions? As you read, how do you relate, personally, to the different stages of life being described? How does this book make you feel about your own aging process?

5. The title of the book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is, in a sense, flippant or humorous. It's also a harsh truth. How does humor work in the book? How does harsh truth work in the book?

6. Over the course of the book, the author provides dozens and dozens of quotations from historical figures, and from other writers. What did you notice about this collection of people, all together? Which individual quotations most resonated with you?

7. What is the role of sports in the book? There are eight sections named “Hoop Dream.” How do these sections, specifically, and sports in general, interact with the themes of the book?

8. Another running theme in the book is fame and popular culture. How do Shields's discussions of fame and popular culture touch on the central themes of the rise and fall of the human body?

9. The book is filled with coexisting dualities: Peter Parker vs. Spiderman, Milt's tough exterior vs. his emotional vulnerability, the urge humans have for our offspring to be like us vs. the hope that they will be nothing like us. How else do you see this theme surfacing in the book? What do you think the author is getting at with these dualities?

10. How does the author incorporate scientific evidence into this book? How does science function in the work for you, the reader?

11. Of all the biological data in the book, which pieces of information have become most clearly lodged in your mind? Were there pieces of this kind of data that you wanted to share with other people? If so, what were they, and why did you want to share them?

12. How would you quantify this book? Is it nonfiction; is it memoir, biography, literary criticism? How does it affect your experience as reader that it is not easy to categorize? Why do you think that the author wrote it this way?

13. In the chapter “Everything I Know I've Learned from My Bad Back,” Shields talks at length about his bad back. What does he mean when he says that “everything” he knows he learned from his bad back? What, in this context, is “everything”?

14. How do you think Milt Shields felt about this book, its publication, and the fact that it became a bestseller? What do you imagine he said to his son about it?

15. The book ends with notes for five different eulogies Shields might give at his father's funeral. Why five eulogies and not one? How do the eulogies differ from one another?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 48 )
Rating Distribution

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(37)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 48 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2008

    Animal Shadows

    Such an interesting book in terms of both form and voice. The clean, athletic and direct prose is at once evocatively descriptive and baldly factual--in keeping with all of Shields' work. And the mosaic form allows for a complex twining of reoccurring and advancing narrative and ruminative threads that will engross and challenge a reader who enjoys a thinking approach to the body and an embodied approach to thinking the body through. And yet the structure of this book is not a random collage, but is rather deeply bound to the oldest of human plots--birth to coming of age to middle adulthood to death. The fragments of this book's trajectory are made up of vignettes about the narrator's own body and those of his immediate family, interlaced with statistics that do not shy away from blood and pain and sex and the dumb actualities of our ever-changing corporeality, tumbling the reader splendidly forward, toward the most common of human inevitabilities. My considerable engagement with this project does not come of always recognizing myself its content, nor should it, as simple agreement would be a disappointment. As a reader entering this text from outside a few of its paradigms--heterosexual coupling and reproduction far from the center of my existence, and that of most of my intimates-- I do resist some of the biological imperatives suggested on these pages. How significant, really, are the animal shadows to non-reproductive sexuality and family life, and is the apparently reproductive-bound plumbing of the female body always the source of mother-daughter rivalry, or are the tensions of female domestic identity formation more complex than one psychoanalytic source might suggest? I'm not always sure when the author is commenting and when he is simply reporting. I'm much more engaged here in the illuminations of how heterosexual men live in the narrative arc of their bodies than I am convinced by the narrator's suppositions into the bodies of women 'although the quotations of Kim Chernin's insights into female anorexia are well-used.' But such readerly argument and internal debate is precisely the point of reading personal/lryic essays written from the full embrace of personal and particular human point of view, and the self-portrait that comes through on these pages is the achievement and importance of the book. I love a cranky, quirky, questioning voice such as this one precisely because it is not my voice. Such is the point of literature, to read across our borders in search of those animal shadows that may or may not unite us, but will push us into a conversation that helps us comprehend our shared journey, from cradle to grave. ---Barrie Jean Borich author of My Lesbian Husband

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    Frighteningly Good, Searingly Intelligent

    The Thing About Life is a daring, far-reaching, and exciting book. Through a series of lists, mini-essays, parables, and glimpses into his--and our--life, Shields' work morphs into a greater thing: a meditation on the joy and hopelessness of our all-too-short existence. Like Romeo and Juliet, TAY is a meditation on the impossible connection between sex and death, but like The Tempest, Shields' work goes further and becomes an honest 'and funny, and melancholy' instruction manual to help us deal with our ultimate ineffectiveness in the face of our inevitable mortality. Buy it, you'll read it again and again (I have).

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2008

    Great topic but lacking

    I found the title to be interesting so purchased the book. I enjoyed reading some of the book but found my self skipping over pages full of facts. There weren't any real new ideas about dying and death. The book did make me think about my own death and the death of my aging parents. I enjoyed the chapter on everyones last words. They are all gone now,, yuppers, dead as we all will be.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2008

    A reviewer

    Shields notes in the final chapter of this book that one of the important things his father taught him was 'to question received wisdom, to insist on his own angle, to view language as a playground, and a playground as bliss.' 'pg. 221' Sadly I have to question the wisdom of this work as Shields arrives at many conclusions with 'data' and 'facts' that are not documented either through footnotes or references. So from my angle I would have to insist that this work is lacking and question some of his ideas. Entire chapters are a waste of time. One entitled 'Death is the Mother of Beauty' is a two page listing of everything that he and his dad found on TV at 2:00AM. Another chapter 'Last Words' is nothing more than 5 pages of mostly famous peoples' thoughts on dying or their supposed last words. This is another one of those books that needed the editor to raise the bar higher when the author did not raise it high enough himself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    Beautiful slice of life

    Based on David Shields past works I had high expectations for a unique, honest, and intelligent take on the complexities of death and life. The Thing About Life delivered. It stays with you long after you read it. This book combines science, personal memoir, and the reflections of literary, historical, and contemporary people, some famous, and some not. The themes are aging, the author's own mortality, and his father's. Shields' demonstrates how the marriage of poetry and science creates exquisite prose: 'Anorexics often grow lanugo, which is soft, wooly body hair...', 'The limbic system - 'the seat of emotions' - exists in part of the brain, the hippocampus, that humans share with lizards...' - 'he (the doctor) thought my dad's hemangiomas (benign tumors composed of large blood vessels) were beautiful.' One thing this book offers to the reader is the gift of increasing the value of life. And this makes me, and those around me, that much better. The Thing About Life is a highly recommended book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2008

    Life Its Own Self

    Reading David Shields¿s magnum opus, The Thing About Life is That Someday You¿ll Be Dead, put me in mind of several things I admire about good literature. One of the highest compliments you can pay to a writer is to say that his work has made you reflect on your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences in this case, my apprehensions, fears, and anxieties about death and dying. In this book¿ part meditation, part-inquiry, part-cultural critique¿ David Shields has managed to confront, investigate, and wrestle with maybe the toughest, most incomprehensible subject a writer can tackle. And he¿s found a way to make it at once playful, serious, thought provoking and funny, as well as simultaneously singular and universal. Perhaps most admirable of all, is that Shields has written a book about death that¿s accessible, intimate, personal, and deeply human. And isn¿t that what all good art aspires to achieve? When I finished the book, I couldn¿t help but recall my first literary encounter with death. It was back in college when I read the medieval morality play, Everyman. Aside from how terrifying it was, what I remember most vividly about this allegory was how deeply I empathized/identified with Everyman, who after receiving his death sentence from God, desperately struggled to find a companion for his journey, someone, he thought, who could speak for his good works. Had David Shields¿s book had been around in the sixteenth century, it would have fulfilled Everyman¿s wish. But since Everyman is no longer here to benefit from Shields¿s wisdom and companionship, I¿ll gladly bring The Thing About Life is That Someday You¿ll Be Dead along with me when my own time comes. In closing (no pun intended), I¿d like to quote from something Shields recently said about writing. ¿Find the form that releases your best intelligence¿ he writes. ¿Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.¿ I can¿t think of a more appropriate way to articulate what David Shields has accomplished in the writing of this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2008

    A truly readable book on aging

    Over the years, I have bought at least six books on aging and I have never finished the first chapter of any of them. Something inside of me says that what happens to our bodies as we get older is very important, but I¿m too lazy to read the research when it is written in the ordinary way. This book was completely different. Shields somehow manages to write about growing older in a way that kept my attention. I flew through his book and never felt bored on a single page. I think one of the reasons he succeeds is that he knows how to present the research very concisely and with quite a bit of verve. Even more importantly, he brings in a large number of very interesting examples of aging taken from his own family and his own life. His father, who is 97, provides a whole bunch of interesting stories of how we function at different stages of growing. He used to be a complete fitness nut and, though he has slowed down markedly, he still has a lot of energy. He also thinks of himself as God¿s gift to women and generally has strong opinions about nearly every subject. He reminds me of a phrase I once heard: ¿often wrong, but never in doubt.¿ Not necessarily the sort of person I would want to room with on a cruise around the world, but great to read about. Shields himself is able to tell a lot of fascinating stories about different phases of his own life-cycle. He is 51, so there isn¿t as much material as there is on his father, and he isn¿t as much of a character as his father. However, he is so honest about his fears and desires and various things that he did in different phases of his life, that these stories are pretty compelling. There are a number of other family members as well, and all of their activities are used very well to show important examples of what happens to us as we age. This book helps us to think about what is happening to us as we grow older and it does in such a fascinating way that we really don¿t want it to end. I am definitely going to read this again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2008

    Shields' Best Yet...

    I have long been a fan of Shields' writing, especially those works that fall loosely into the category of 'non-fiction'. Books like this one combine the blunt honesty of autobiography, the self-exploration and fading recollections of memoir, the craft of fiction, and the scholarly linkages of an academic essay. In 'The Thing About Life...' readers will see glimpses of Shields' earlier books, all seemingly drawn together in one complexly organized narrative. In another writer's hands this book would be three times the length and far less compelling. Everything matters here: facts, cohesion, language, craft, voice. It is what I hope modern non-fiction writing becomes. It is more honest and revealing than sappy memoirs, better crafted than most short fiction, and as smart as any historical text I've read. From novels to short fiction to collage non-fiction, to sports, to an attack on memoir...one wonders what Shields has in store for us next.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2008

    A Keeper

    Shields¿ new book, The Thing About Life is that One Day You¿ll Be Dead, is like a mirror: it will look different for every reader. I am not quite middle-aged, and the book gave me a jolt I appreciated: ¿Get up and live!¿ Thinking of them often as I read, I had to wonder what it might be like for my 20-something siblings or 50-year-old parents or 60-year-old in-laws or 90-year-old grandparents to read the book. Different, certainly, than it was for me. The book is such a powerful arrangement of narrative, thought, and data that I hesitated, out of deference to the taboo on suggesting that humans die, to send my family copies. But I had to. And I know they will not be able to put the book down, because reading The Thing About Life¿ feels like watching a train wreck and a beautiful birth at the same time. I¿m picky about the books I open. I¿m even more picky about the books I finish. I find that my interest in many nonfiction books (the only kind I read these days) tends to peter out a third of the way through. The Thing About Life¿, though, compelled me to the last page--as if I couldn¿t imagine how it would end. A page-turner of an essay: what a feat. This book is wiser and richer than Mary Roach¿s 'Stiff.' It invites the reader to peer inside and get reacquainted with the body and soul staring back.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2008

    Here is the low down on ¿The Thing About Life¿:

    1. I learned more about the human body than I ever did in my high school health science textbook, and 2. I cried for the first time in years (and I consider myself some sort of ¿tough guy¿). Regarding item number 2: I couldn¿t help myself. I thought of my own father and our relationship the whole time, I despaired at how truly fragile we all are, how we are all just one poorly placed footstep in front of the city bus away from oblivion. Yet somehow by the end it wasn¿t despair I felt, but joy. What Shields is saying to me is that life is so beautifully messy that we must savor every complex minute of it, that we are all works in progress till the very end. This revelation came as such a surprise. I really didn¿t see it coming, as I was guided by the hand through the brutally honest museum of body. Which leads me to the first item: you will learn something by reading this book! I can bust these facts out at parties! The life expectancy for women in the Caribbean anyone? Or perhaps Cicero¿s thoughts on old age? Yes indeed and I¿ve got more where that came from! People like me more at work too. I¿ve won countless friends standing my the water cooler and saying things like, ¿did you know that after age 60 men have fewer and fewer erections?¿ So next time you see me, please do ask what Babe Ruth¿s last words were, and if you want to know the meaning of life, I think I have an idea or two about that as well. The Thing About Life is That One Day You¿ll Be Dead: a great read and well worth the time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2008

    Really great

    I like this book because it pours water on the idea that we're going to live forever. I'm Generation X, and I tend to have a horror of all the ways my forebears in the 'me' generation try to secure immortality: life insurance, Metamucil, highly educated children, hormone replacement therapy and testosterone injections, colonoscopies, targeted fitness regimens, yoga, fruit flushes, omega-3, erection aids, lubricants, continuing education, crossword puzzles, side-impact air bags, cryonic suspension, what have you. It all seems so needy, and I'm just sure that all this yearning for eternal life will somehow become the burden of my own generation, long after the Classic Rock format has disappeared. So here comes David Shields--who admits to being 51--to remind us that we're kidding ourselves, at least partly. Your brain does not--cannot--get bigger as you get older in fact, the brain of a 90-year-old is about the same size as that of a 3-year-old. Meanwhile, by the time you're 50, you will have lost a significant share of your ability to perceive vibrations in your lower body. Enter superman. His own father--97 (yes he was born before WW I and was probably having sex before the first 'talkie'--yet he's still kicking)--is the terribly flawed but lovable hero of this book. He's pre-Baby Boomer, and he doesn't heed the statistics or any of the other conventional wisdom. He merely is. This manic-depressive nonpracticing Jewish sportswriter and advocate for the left, with his fanatical regard for himself and his almost unbearable zest for life, takes this parable of birth, life, and death to a new level. It's a little odd to get such a gimlet-eyed look at a living father through the eyes of a loyal son and to realize, gradually, that this is an act of love and not patricide, but that's how this book works. By the end, as I was mourning their relationship, knowing that it must soon come to an end, if not this year, perhaps the next or the next one after that, I was grateful for the shared moments between the two--awkward, contentious, but also heartbreaking--and also for this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2008

    You may not have the guts to read this book, but do it anyway.

    This is a remarkable book, a read that will stay with you for a long time. But it is not for the faint hearted, or those folks unwilling to look some hard and harsh realities of our physical existence directly in the eye. In a unique writing style that takes a bit of getting used to, that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Slaughterhouse Five, Shields takes us on a journey. This is the journey of vibrant and youthful exuberance and athleticism to the challenges of middle age to the physical issues of old age. The narrative comingles personal anectdotes of the author's personal issues, his daughter's youth, and his preternaturally exuberant and vital father who is active in his 90s. Along with this humanized and occasionally almost uncomfortably intimate story, there is intermingled factoids relating to health, aging, and inevitable deterioration. This Shields and I are the same age, and he is literally taking some of the exact same medications I am, and has some of the exact same physical and mental challenges relating to aging that I am personally experiencing everyday, this book packed an emotional wallup to me. There was a sense of the inevitability of aging that I find annoying. But I can't tell if I am annoyed at the reality of aging, or that Shields takes off the blinders that most of us go through life about, and documents that aging and death are currently universals. Most of us are more comfortable denying the reality of our mortality. The twin elepants in the room, aging and death, are routinely ignored in our daily treks. So, if you prefer to remain in happy igorance about what nature has in store for you, don't read this book. But if you want a read that will stay with you, and inform and motivate your desire to deal with aging and death, this could be your book. I personally wish Shields would have dealt more with alternatives and possibilities, including cryonic suspension upon pronoucement of 'legal death.' Although this is mentioned briefly, there is not a lot of hopeful alternatives dealt with in this book. But I challenge you to have the courage to buy this book and read it, and think about the enormity of the subject matter. Your life is worth this. Rudi Hoffman Port Orange, FL

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2008

    Read this book!

    There¿s some lofty topics that writers ¿for good reason¿hesitate to take on: the meaning of life, the nature of love, what women want, and the pesky issue of mortality are a few that top the list. In a recent interview, the seemingly fearless Jacques Derrida balked when asked, ¿What is love?¿ And while he eventually rallied when reminded that all the Greek philosophers spoke of the nature of love (no self-respecting philosopher could ignore that throwing down of that glove), his resistance reminded me that even intellectual heavyweights want to shrug off the tough work of articulating the ineffable. The Thing about Life is That One Day You¿ll be Dead is a bold book that explores this odd duality that exists in each of us: we know we¿ll die¿one day¿but we¿re also quite sure this won¿t happen to us, somehow we¿ll be the exception. Reading Shields¿ book, I became aware that this belief of immortality informs everything we do¿toe tapping in line in the grocery store, mindless TV watching, cursing the rain¿all speak of our subterranean certainty that we¿ll be around till the end of time. It¿s a quirky book, almost outrageous in its structure that follows the decline of the human body, and one well worth reading. And no, it¿s not depressing Shields is as funny as he is insightful.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2008

    LEAVE ALL EXPECTATIONS BEHIND

    Is this book funny? Yes. Is this book informative? Yes. Is this book touching? Yes. Is this book challenging? Yes. Is this a book that you can easily describe, categorize, place in a box with a hundred similar titles? No. How did David Shields pull off this strange and amazing and unique and captivating book about his father, himself, ourselves? Brilliantly.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2008

    Father Knows Best, Sort Of

    If you have not read any David Shields, The Thing About Life is That One Day You¿ll be Dead will help you understand what all the fuss is all about. David Shields is a hero in the growing movement of quirky non-fiction writers. His writing is honest, smart, embarrassingly self-deprecating, and hilarious. Shields¿s first efforts were works of fiction, but he has slowly slid into the role of the brilliant observer of society, sports, race, families¿and himself. In One Day You¿ll Be Dead, Shields dissects his relationship with his father Milt, who is creeping up on one hundred years old. Milt would be worthy of an entire book ¿ he¿s an obsessive health nut who outlived his wife by decades and is still on the hunt for a new mate. A retired sportswriter who is locked into eternal competition with his son, Milt has the joie de vivre of a man fifty years his junior ¿ which is exactly what David Shields is. Between examinations of Milt¿s life and their awkward and tender father-son relationship, Shields alternates his focus. First, there are the uncomfortable details about the deterioration of the human body ¿ disturbing but engrossing facts about how and why our bodies fail us. Quotes about death and illness from philosophers, athletes, writers, and celebrities are tossed in. Also, Shields weaves in a partial memoir about his own childhood, where injury and genetics squashed his dreams of a pro sports career. That¿s covering a lot of territory, sure, but Shields blends it all in seamlessly, like a master chef with a refrigerator full of leftovers. Like many a non-fiction book, the real subject matter seems to be the author. Not to worry: he¿s a fascinating guy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2009

    It's not fluff.

    The book is only lightly seasoned with David Shield's usual humor. It's a look at Shields' own mortality but through through a lens of literary citations and statistics. The real delight of the book is the gradual introduction to his father.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2008

    One or two weak chapters

    David Shields is entertaining. He puts concepts together in a way that feels unique. A reader is educated, amazed, provoked and in the end, comforted by this book. I read reviews before I bought the book and they were very well written and covered almost everything I think about the novel. I did find one chapter a little tedious--the one about last words. Maybe these quotes needed more setup or maybe Shields meant to show the random nature of last words, but it was a tough chapter to plow through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    The quintessential book for all those who are not immortal

    When David Shields writes a book, look out. It is always: fresh, provocative, engaging, universal, funny, serious, pensive, real, and important. 'The Thing about Life' is no exception. Here David Shields examines his proverbial bellybutton, along with the rest of his/his father's/our slowly-dying bodies, minds and souls...Yet somehow, this book is very much a dialogue about being alive. I felt about 'The Thing About...' like I feel about life: I didn't want it to end. In a word (homonym): this book is the ultimate tomb/tome.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    A brave and beautiful book

    The author takes on one of the biggest , toughest subjects with honesty, intelligence, and humor. It's brave, original, intimate, and funny. In a series of tight, riffy chapters, Shields interweaves stories about himself and his family members -- chiefly his active 96-year-old father -- with essays on the physiology of human development and decline (''Until you're 30, your grip strength increases after 40 it declines precipitously'). He also, to broaden the view, scatters in quotes about aging and dying by famous people. (T.S. Eliot: 'The years between 50 and 57 are the hardest. You are being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.'') Shields' comic persona suggests a meatier, more forthcoming Woody Allen. ('I'm not thrilled to acknowledge that I date the origin of my back problems to the period, thirteen years ago, when I repeatedly threw Natalie, then an infant, up in the air and carried her around in a Snugli.') The chapters cut from subject to subject seemingly at random but you feel underneath the drive and unity of the author's purpose. The book is populated with lively, well-drawn characters, affectionately presented, immersed in life. Shields the narrator is excellent company. His extended description of the decline of the body has something of the delicious, slow-motion thrill of watching cars crash in a movie. As you approach the end, the chapters of this fearless, deeply humane book seem to stream through your hands like sand in an hourglass.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2008

    Nah

    I found bits and pieces of this book interesting but not enough to recommend someone reading it. There are so many other fantastic books out there!

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