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How Literature Saved My Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 5, 2013


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Guest Review of “How Literature Saved My Life,” by David Shields

By Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the best-selling memoir Wild. Strayed writes the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, the Missouri Review, Brain, Child, The Rumpus, the Sun and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, her essays and stories have been published in The Best American Essays, The Best New American Voices, and other anthologies.

Great books are born of grand passions. The best literature is made when authors refuse to rest easy, but instead dig into their obsessions in order to express not just what’s true, but what’s truer still. This greatness is apparent on every page of David Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life, a culturally searching declaration of the power and limitations of literature that’s also a highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal soul search by one super smart man who consumes and considers books as if his life depends on it.

Part memoir, part manifesto, How Literature Saved My Life is as wide-ranging as it is intimate, and much of its power lies in the ambitiousness of Shields’s reach. It’s a book that defies definition. My category for it is simply a strange book that I love. It’s a serenade wrapped inside a cross-examination; an intellectual book that reads like a detective novel. In its pages, one reads about subjects as diverse as Tiger Woods, the theory that someday tiny robots will roam inside our bodies to reverse the damage caused by aging, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and the private journals of Shields’s unsuspecting college girlfriend.

This is a long way of saying that How Literature Saved My Life is a book with balls. It doesn’t ask for permission to be what it is: an original, opinionated, gentle-hearted, astonishingly intelligent collage of the ideas, reflections, memories, and experiences of a writer so avidly determined to understand what literature means that the reader must know too.

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2013: Anyone who gives a hoot about the status and the future of storytelling needs this rangy, brainy, bad-ass book--a book that celebrates books, dissects books, and pays homage to the creators of our stories. Packed with riffs and rants--some hilarious, some brilliant, some flat-out zany--this is caffeinated, mad-genius stuff: sly, manic, thoughtful, and witty. (Shields' three-page self-comparison to George W. Bush--"he likes to watch football and eat pretzels"--is especially fun.) At times, I felt like I was on a madcap tour of an eccentric professor's private basement library, never knowing what was around the next corner. My review copy is littered with underlines and exclamation points and, yes, a handful of WTFs. Part critical analysis, part essay, and part memoir, How Literature Saved My Life offers its liveliest passages when Shields reveals Shields. A stutterer, he developed an early kinship with the written word, since the spoken word came to him with "dehumanizing" difficulty. Which makes one of his final lines all the more potent: "Language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn't, not quite." --Neal Thompson
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307961524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307961525
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #789,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of sixteen books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and I Think You're Totally Wrong (published in January 2015 by Knopf and forthcoming as a film later this year). He has four more books forthcoming over the next fifteen months: Life Is Short--Art Is Shorter (Hawthorne Books), That Thing You Do With Your Mouth (McSweeney's), War Is Beautiful (powerHouse Books), and Other People (Knopf). The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By K. Polzin on January 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
While I disagreed with much of what Shields writes in this book, I found it thought-provoking, and it affected me for some time after I read it.

Shields quotes from a variety of writers and weaves in stories from his life (which I found evocative) to show how literature can and can't stave off despair. The book is weakest when Shields seems to assume the reader shares his reactions and his sense of despair, and strongest when Shields makes a personal argument for the kind of writing he finds meaningful. For example, a chapter called "Fifty-five Works I Swear By" got me excited about reading quite a few of the works, whereas a chapter that begins with Tiger Woods' car accident ("my initial reaction...was 'What's the matter with me that I hope he's been paralyzed or killed,'") led to some questionable Freudian business about "what lives wants to die again."

Shields believes the narrative novel no longer has anything to offer. Many readers are unlikely to agree with that. Yet Shields' argument for the kind of writing he feels is important is a fascinating read that makes you think critically about writing.
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34 of 43 people found the following review helpful By bas bleu VINE VOICE on January 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I love hearing another word lovers thoughts and what they love, think and feel about words that have touched their lives, for me the author feels like and old friend, even though this is the first work of his that I have read. He gets it, all the wonderful,crazy, funny, absurd, thought provoking, endearing moments that words can bring to our experience on this journey, most importantly, he tells the truth about the hole in our lives that even really good writing cannot fill, for any of us. Why the hole? Because we are all mere mortals and perfection is not within our grasp, but learning is and that makes the journey well worth the taking. Love words, love to roll them through your mind ,fusing different thoughts in an out of the box way. Love to read authors that can mold nouns into a new way of seeing because of great choices of adjectives, or ideas drawn from the absurdity of life, love reading Aeschylus,Aristophanes,Cervantes, Milton, Goethe,Tolstoy, and more,more,more? Love different opinions and ideas-- viewpoints ,limitless suggestions and observartions in and about life, how to live it , how to perceive it, how to describe it, how to interpret it? In the end we have the scope of our experiences and what we read of others experiences, what a wonderful journey. Words are gems , the best writers are gem cutters of excellent talent, and add beauty, freshness, setting the gems they have cut,expanding our visions with the clarity of an idea to ponder and examine the beauty of a thought we had not had before. Words are a gift, a tool always changing,becoming,inspiring,provking thoughts,ideas and helping us become, if we but take the time to explore all different kinds of stories and yes even a childs book can be a true gem.Read more ›
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Erin O'Riordan VINE VOICE on March 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Remember the 'Simpsons' episode in which Bart sold his soul? He dreamed of an afterlife that could only be reached by rowboat, and the rowboat was only functional and useful for reaching the afterlife to those whose doubles, their souls, accompanied them. Bart had no soul, no double, so his boat could only limp around in a sad circle. David Shields believes that literature is, like Bart Simpson's soul, both a reflection of one's self (for the reader as much as for the writer; he'll only accept literature through which he can strongly identify with the author) and a necessity. Shields views life as a brief, doomed enterprise of self-aware, diseased creatures headed inexorably for death, and the only way he can think to make this enterprise endurable is to communicate with his fellow-creatures as we tumble headlong toward oblivion. Communication, he admits, is imperfect at best, but the written word (including its digital 21st century evolutions) is the best tool we have for it.

I can imagine this was an enjoyable book for Shields to write, crammed as it is with quotes and borrowed ideas from the authors with whom he most closely identifies and can, therefore, tolerate. It's not as enjoyable to read. At times it veers dangerously close to whiny/nebbishy/neurotic/self-pitying-whilst-self-deprecating material I associate with Woody Allen and Philip Roth, a tone I find grating and artless. (I think I can say that - I have the one Jewish grandmother.) Shields appreciates artlessness. He doesn't want layers of artifice between himself and the author of the book he's reading; he wants minimally-filtered truth so he doesn't feel alone in the universe. He denies that escapism has a place in literature, bleak though the human landscape may be.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Marks VINE VOICE on April 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When books like HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE have catchy titles but little substance, and receive numerous positive reviews in reputable publications, while truly superb new books (BREAKING OF EGGS by Jim Powell comes to mind) receive little publicity or acclaim, I despair about the future of quality reading.

Shields' style doesn't begin to compensate for the fact that he has little of value to say. His hodgepodge of disconnected vignettes which hopscotch from topic to topic might appeal to people whose attention span inclines them to read tidbits rather than linear stories or chapters - but is likely to be annoying to those of us who prefer a coherent narrative.

At least in regard to substance, Shields does provide a few gems, although most are quotes from other authors, such as Annie Dillard. A few times, however, what he writes isn't a quote from someone else, and expresses real insight. One such nugget: "Our deepest strength is indivisible from our most embarrassing weakness....Everyone's ambition is underwritten by a tragic flaw...In short, what animates us inevitably ails us." How true!

But what ails us can help us discover what animates us, and unfortunately, HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE is lacking in animation or emotional engagement. Perhaps because Shields is so relentlessly self-revealing, we're supposed to care about his adolescence and early adulthood, and be interested in his one-and-two-sentence sketches of books and movies that appeal to him. But unfortunately, I didn't care, and if I hadn't made a commitment to review the book, I would never been able to read past the first few pages. As it was, I barely read 2/3 of it before I gave up.
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