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How Literature Saved My Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 5, 2013
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Amazon Guest Review of “How Literature Saved My Life,” by David Shields
By 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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
In "How Literature Saved My Life" Shields misses his mark. Ostensibly this is a work about - like the title says - how literature saved his life. However, literature really didn't save his life. Like many reviewers, I thought I was headed for a work on the loneliness and alienation of modern society and the redemptive powers of literature. Shields hints at this, but most of this work is about the literature he likes and how most of literature fails him. In fact, he hasn't read much literature since the late 1990's (pg 124). What Shields has been more focused on is the pursuit of a new literary form, one he calls collage, that would exist on the "bleeding edge" of genres between fiction and non-fiction and memoir and essay. These are the books that Shields writes about, the ones he loves, the one he quotes from and recommends. That's a big part of this book - as well as much of this book is an argument why he published "Reality Hunger" which was pretty tiresome since it is not that interesting and not that easy to relate to.
Still, Shields' voice is powerful enough that it kept me intrigued the entire time, and I'm sure this will be a book I reread passages of continually. Shields will deconstruct himself, including the less pleasant parts of himself, with exacting laser vision and leave himself bare to the reader.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
You always want to read more after you finish a David Shields book, and, really, what higher praise could there be for a writer?Published 6 months ago by David M. Starkey
Sorry, I couldn't get through this book....just not for me. It all seemed kind of pretentious and the author seemed overly self-absorbed.Published 11 months ago by Sue Maple
Stunning. Absolutely beautiful. I think it is a must read for those who love literature.Published 18 months ago by Amazon Customer
Shields says there's no more time in this world for long form fiction. Self reflexive memoir is all that's worth a damn. Concision is paramount . Read morePublished 20 months ago by Joshua Cordasco
David Shield has become one of my favorite authors. For the most part the titles that sustain him (again and again) are not the ones that I return to frequently, but he makes a... Read morePublished 21 months ago by author
I wanted to throw this book out the window but since it is on my Kindle I didnt have the luxury of that option. The author is nauseatingly self absorbed and not even interesting. Read morePublished on January 20, 2014 by Kindle Customer
The best thing about David Shield's book is that it is short. It is pretentious, disconnected and rambling. Read morePublished on December 25, 2013 by Kevin Brianton