How Literature Saved My Life

Looking through a hyper-personal lens, David Shields offers opinions and proclamations on what makes particular writers important.

How Literature Saved My Life By David Shields Knopf Doubleday 224 pp.

In my favorite section of How Literature Saved My Life, David Shields recounts an anecdote he heard about a film director who happened to sit next to George W. Bush on a flight from Seoul. During the flight, a Korean dentist took out his camcorder and panned from Bush to the famous director to the in-flight showing of "King Kong." It’s a humorous, plausibly peculiar moment that, in the ubiquity of the camera, the filming of the film, and the odd juxtaposition of people on the plane, encapsulates postmodernity.

I wish there were more moments like it in this slim volume, which instead dwells on Shields’s tastes, angsts, and proclamations of what makes particular writers important. I once heard the memoirist Patricia Hampl observe that there are two types of memoir, one that bears witness to a historical moment through the lens of personal experience and another that’s about “how I came to be me.” Shields’s book is the latter, and he reads the authors he loves almost exclusively through this lens. 

Conspicuously absent is writing driven by social or political issues, which is a legitimate choice, but Shields never touches on this aspect even when he discusses deeply political writers like Milan Kundera or Kurt Vonnegut.  For Shields it’s all personal – which, of course, it is, but for him it’s exclusively so. 

The book is divided into sections with headings suggesting David-Foster-Wallace-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh (e.g., “In which I evoke my character and personality, especially the way I always argue against myself, am ridiculously ambivalent – who knew?”).  Comprised of fragmentary reflections, his structure resembles Annie Dillard’s "For the Time Being," which Shields admires, yet whereas Dillard’s mosaic of observations and introspection comprises a moving search for meaning, Shields’s often appears merely self-aggrandizing, as when he revisits memories of the girlfriend who recorded her passion for him in a journal he read on the sly or quotes a reviewer who has “overpraised” his work. 

Shields is a highly regarded and important author, so I kept wondering, why don’t I like this book? I, too, love many of the authors he reveres. I, too, prefer D.F. Wallace’s essays to his fiction. I’m even an admirer of a (comparatively) lesser-known writer like Maggie Nelson, whose "Bluets" I was pleased to discover in his list “Fifty-five works I swear by.” My favorite superhero is even Spider-Man and I looked forward to reading Shields’s analysis of him.      

Yet for the most part, the book left me cold or (I’ll admit it) even slightly irritated. Yes, the prose was well-written, but it served to posit ideas about art and life I’d already heard ad infinitum or recount events of Shields’s life that just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe his book will sit better with fans of his earlier work who are interested in Shields’ personal life, or readers who hope to learn about postmodernism through reading a text that both discusses and self-consciously exemplifies it. 

Apropos of Shields’ postmodern bent:

A professor of mine once recounted that a reviewer dismissed her memoir by criticizing her for never forgiving her parents. She noted that it was an imposition of Christian morality to claim that a book was only “good” if it culminated in redemption. She was right, of course. Conversely, for Shields, who conspicuously revels in a postmodern ethic, literature is of value only if it subscribes to an inherently meaningless universe. For this reason, he eschews novels – all fiction, really – which he claims unilaterally argues for meaning in the world by virtue of creating a cohesive narrative, and he thus dismisses as unrealistic and escapist. 

Literature is under no obligation to represent a cohesive, redemptive universe, true, but it seems narrow, if not arrogant, to dismiss all writers who see meaning in the world (and thus depict it in their fiction) or who are (God forbid) overtly religious, like, say, Marilynne Robinson or Toni Morrison (the latter, unsurprisingly, Shields makes it clear that he doesn’t like). 

By the time I dragged myself to the finish line of the closing chapter, I was dying to pick up my five-month-old from daycare, little life-force that he is, for a dose of – what? – non-cerebral, unmediated humanness? Call me old-fashioned, but I need something – be it parenthood, family, love – untouched by the technology-saturated postmodern world that obsesses Shields, a world in which we are each terrified of and running from our inescapable isolation and mortality.

Elizabeth Toohey lives in Brooklyn and teaches courses remotely as a visiting professor for Principia College. She is currently teaching courses on postcolonial literature and gender studies.

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