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How Literature Saved David Shields' Life

The author of 'Reality Hunger' dodges those ol' bullets of anomie
Wayne Alan Brenner, 2:41pm, Mon. Feb. 4, 2013
Read the scene where gravity
is pulling me around
David Shields, because he didn't kill himself before he finished writing his latest book, has a lot to say about human mortality and loneliness and literature.

Well, no, that's not precisely true: He has a lot to say, regardless; although of course suicide would have effectively truncated anything he was working himself and his prodigious education up about.

What I mean is that, in the author's new How Literature Saved My Life, you can read all of what he's had to say, recently, for yourself – in your own attempt to stave off loneliness or to divert your attention from the glint of the reaper's onrushing scythe or (as if this option were somehow relatively banal) because much of what Shields writes about those things, and literature, is worth your while to read. Look: It's deeply considered, it's scholarishly foundationed, it's spiced with as much current pop-culture allusion as with harkening to the wisdom of the ancients.

It's The David Shields Aiming-Beyond-Numbness Hour, ladies and gentlemen, brought to you by J. Gutenberg & Sons, with special guest stars Ben Lerner, George W. Bush, Sarah Manguso, Spider-Man, Annie Dillard, Jonathan Lethem, Renata Adler, the author's parents (deceased), the author's wife and daughter (living), a few of the women the author has loved and/or fucked, the ghost of David Foster Wallace, and many many more!

Shields: "I believe in art as pathology lab, landfill, recycling station, death sentence, aborted suicide note, lunge at redemption."

Which is totally in keeping with the thrust of the author's previous book, Reality Hunger, in which he calmly and inexorably ripped the world of literature, or at least the moribund parts, a new one – by calling for 1) the sort of "sampling" prevalent in modern music and 2) a disregard for (if not hostility to) the distinctions between fact and fiction, mostly.

[Look: We reviewed that book here.]

Shields: "The writer getting in the way of the story is the story, is the best story, is the only story."

This belief is the other reason why a reader gets so much of the 56-year-old author in the segmented trail of literary dead reckoning that Random House is releasing on February 8th. And if that amount of author-intrusion is problematic for you, that's weird – because here you are, reading a book review about a book that's not a work of popular genre fiction, a book called How Literature Saved My Life, no less … and so what else are you looking for that's as real and interesting as another intelligent, articulate, bibliophilic human's personal revelations? At times, a certain exasperation might tempt you to whisper to Shields a quote from the movie Stripes – "Lighten up, Francis." – but, for the most part, this is some highly palatable bookish palaver.

Bonus: Shields' "Fifty-five works I swear by" section offers a sort of brief, base-touching tour of other writers' creations – creations that would, I reckon, further edify the life of anyone's mind.

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