David Shields — “How Literature Saved My Life”

How LiteratureAll criticism is a form of autobiography.

That’s the first line from “How Literature Saved My Life.”

Every book recommendation (like this one) says something (lots) about the recommender.

So I’m going to strongly urge that you read this book but don’t hold it against me if you don’t like it.

I can’t imagine a breezier, easier way to think about good books and, just as much, why we read and what we expect to experience.

“How Literature Saved My Life” is a skipping stone—the book rockets along, mixing thoughtful bits of insight about Shields’ favorite books with brutally honest gazes in the mirror at Shields’ own quirks, foibles and imperfections.

Shields’ references run the gamut from low brow to high brow—Spider Man, Renata Adler, Ben Lerner, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Jonathan Lethem, The Addams Family, Tiger Woods, Ray Kurzweil, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sarah Manguso, Annie Dillard, Lester Bangs, Jorge Luis Borges, Richard Brautigan, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and more. Many, many more. On and on with the references and recommendations. It would take me years to read and catch up with Shields. (But he gives me the urge to do so.)

Ultimately, Shields is fascinated by the ability of a novel (and writing in general) to assert, define and establish our place in the world—to confirm humanity and our uniqueness and individuality. He deconstructs favorite books with quick strokes but is at his best when he talks about the experience of reading and the power of the experience that’s possible merely by tracking words on a page.

“When I can’t sleep, I get up and pull a book off the shelves. There are no more than thirty writers I can reliably turn to in this situation, and Salinger is still one of them. I’ve read each of his books at least a dozen times. What is it in his work that offers such solace at 3:00 A.M. of the soul? For me, it’s how his voice, to a different degree and in a different way in every book, talks back to itself, how it listens to itself talking, comments upon hears, and keeps talking. This self-awareness, this self-reflexivity, is the pleasure and burden of being conscious, and the gift of this work—what makes me less lonely and makes life more livable—lies in its revelation that this isn’t a deformation in how I think; this is how human beings think.”

Shields closes the distance between his bookish, literary world and us with brutally frank tidbits about his utterly human desires and the way his mind processes the relationship with himself and others. Shields doesn’t hold back.

I borrowed this book at the library but will buy myself a copy, not only for the book recommendations within it, but to have something to read when it’s “3:00 A.M. of the soul.”

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