How Literature Saved My Life

Image of How Literature Saved My Life
Release Date: 
February 1, 2013
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“. . . in How Literature Saved My Life, Mr. Shields has written a great book—and one that matters.”

Uncompromisingly intelligent, blisteringly forthright, and eschewing convention at every turn, David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life is a book that never allows the reader an easy ride.

Breathlessly written and, at times, headacheingly consumed, this is a book-length poke to the chest; a 200+-page provocation, like calling Marty McFly “chicken” in a million different ways, borrowing quotes from scores of different minds. It is at times perhaps overly zealous (though never erring on the side of becoming preachy). And yet it is eminently readable and surprisingly life affirming.

Reasons for this? Easy. Mr. Shields is one engaging writer. His enthusiasm is contagious. He cares, deeply, about his subject. He wants literature, writing, to remain relevant in our “byte-obsessed culture,” noting that: “We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored and numb.”

He is desperate that literature does not go gentle into that good night: “The novel is an artifact, which is why antiquarians cling to it so fervently. Art, like science, progresses. Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason—or so I have to believe, the novel having long since grown dark for me . . .”

He wants a literature that is visceral, which rages, which matters. Reading something good, something great, he argues, should be a metaphysical experience. Nothing should get in the way: “I did something I do when I genuinely love a book: start covering my mouth when I read. This is very pure and elemental, and I want nothing coming between me and the page.”

Literature must adapt: “I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.” Or it will die. Because make no mistake about it, literature as we know it has some competition when it comes to our modern micro-attention spans: “By far the most popular novels of our era are interactive, plot-driven computer games: 11 million people subscribe to World of Warcraft alone . . . All the people who play a particular game are in the same virtual space and interact with one another; it’s not exactly fiction or fantasy, and it’s not exactly reality, either. It’s a middle ground—quasireality, fictional nonfiction.”

Much like this book, as it happens. Reading this book is like being stuck in an elevator with a philosophy professor and with her English Literature sidekick. And a few of their choice chums to boot. It’s like being crammed in amongst the elbows and the knees and voices of all these learned folk who are itching to argue. About life, literature (same thing?), writing, reading.

As readers, we’re faced with something of a clamorous Babel:

“The possibility that every word in the book might be quotation and not ‘original’ to the author could have arisen. The whole argument of that version of the book was to put ‘reality’ within quadruple quotation marks. Reality isn’t straightforward or easily accessible; it’s slippery, evasive. Just as authorship is ambiguous, knowledge is dubious, and truth is unknown or, at the very least, relative.”

But in his blending of high- and low-brow culture (everything but Marty McFly; here, Mr. Shields channels Spider-Man, Baudrillard, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Nabokov, Coetzee, World of Warcraft, Emerson, Sonny Rollins, David Salle, James Joyce’s The Dead, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Aeschylus, Prometheus, baby boomers, Nietzsche, David Markson, Terry Castle, TV—“immersing ourselves in DVD after DVD of The Sopranos, The Wire, The Singing Detective, Brideshead Revisited. Don’t let it ever end, we practically pray to the screen. Don’t let it ever die . . . ,” reality TV . . .) honestly and desperately presents his search for authenticity, for truth, for true intimacy. For the method in which the patient, literature, can be saved.

“Because language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite. It never fails to fail us, never doesn’t defeat us, is bottomlessly . . . But here I am, trying to paper over the gaps with dried-up glue.”

Only connect . . . Famously, that desperate rallying call was used in the epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. And here, Mr. Shields yearns to truly connect with the reader, to hold his or her attention, despite everything. At times, he’ll tap us on the shoulder or he’ll offer us a wry nod, or else, at others, he’ll address us directly, Charlotte Brönte-style, opening up a channel of conversation with us which is full of diversions, questions, and asides: “Am I uniquely horrible?” “You, too, dear reader . . .”

How Literature Saved My Life is a book that defies easy definition. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Its genre is a kind of “wayward nonfiction”, “built almost entirely out of other writers’ lines —some attributed, most not, many mashed-up.” Mr. Shields notes: “Everything I’ve written . . . has been collage (from the French coller, ‘to glue’).” He notes: “I wanted the reader to not quite be able to tell who was talking – was it me or Sonny Rollins or Emerson or Nietzsche or David Salle or, weirdly, none of us or all of us at the same time.”

It’s sometimes scary. He notes: “The next Shakespeare will be a hacker possessing programming gifts and ADD-like velocity, which is more or less how the original Shakespeare emerged—using/ stealing the technology of his time (folios, books, other plays, oral history) and filling the Globe with its input. New artists, it seems to me, have to learn the mechanics of computing/ programming and—possessing a vision unhumbled by technology—use them to disassemble/ recreate the web.”

But change is always scary.

Mr. Shields notes: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms. It’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form . . .” That being the case, in How Literature Saved My Life, Mr. Shields has written a great book, and one which matters.