14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2013
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.
34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
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. If you are a lover of a good phrase, an apt description, unforgetable quotes,discovering an idea that you had never thought of, the good and the bad because they round us out and give birth to exploration of ourselves and our environments- chances are this book will inspire, entertain, and give the gift of making your mind a wiser place. Learning is supurb ecstacy.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.
In the end, has David Shields convinced me to care what he thinks about the purpose of literature? No, he has not. If a book is intended to be an instrument through which reader and author connect as mirror images of one another, this one fails. Or does it? Maybe the truth is that I see too much of myself in David Shields, and I dislike the book because I dislike certain aspects of myself. I could explore this theory in a series of loosely-connected, short essays full of borrowed thought, but I doubt anyone else would want to read it.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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.
Perhaps there are readers who want to read a detailed description of how women responded to Shields sexually, or find out how he reacted when he learned that Tiger Woods had a minor accident. His list of 55 books he recommends might intrigue some readers - most likely, those who who resonate with Shields' apparent nihilism. This book is so littered with brief, unenlightening references to other books he has read that he appears to be doing a kind of pseudo-intellectual namedropping. I did so myself when I was a freshman philosophy student. It is for many of us, a necessary stage, one which has value at the time, but which we eventually outgrow.
Yes, David Shields dares to reveal many of his struggles and embarrassments (e.g. stuttering), but in the process he comes across as an unfunny, solipsistic, self-deprecatory, postmodern Woody Allen.
Clearly, there is an audience for this book, but it is likely to be the jaded and cynical, or the depressed and nihilistic who sadly are unable to experience the richness of their lives and human connection, and who seek - as most of us do - confirmation in what they read. Hopefully such confirmation will help them move on to the next stage - and feel more life-affirming.
The book is divided into these chapters or sections: Prologue, Negotiating Against Myself, Love is a Long Close Scrutiny, Why Is the Human Animal So Sad, One Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, The Sound of the Bow, All Great Books..., Life vs. Art, How Literature Saved My life.
Each section has a subtitle. For example, for Negotiating Against Myself: "In which I evoke my character and personality, especially the way I always argue against myself, am ridiculously ambivalent - who knew?" For The Wound and the Bow: "In which I make various self-destructive gestures, flirt none too successfully or seriously with suicide, pull back from brink via the written word".
HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE is really not about how literature saved David Shields' life. It is a collection of disconnected self-indulgent ramblings, a verbal collage - and inverted at that, as if he is speaking to himself rather than seeking to connect with his audience.
In my opinion, Shields has little of value to say, and he is no master at saying it. Why he is acclaimed as a writer is beyond my understanding. The wizard is only a little man behind a curtain, and "the Emperor wears no clothes."
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
How many times can we say after reading a book that we want to at the very least start back to page 1 and read it again, or at the other extreme, memorize it. But that is what happens after luxuriating in the prose of David Shields' newest book, HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE.
This is a series of thoughts and reactions and ruminations on language, on fellow writers, on love, on the process of thinking, on life as he lives it and as we are living it, how he remembers moments in his life - being a stutterer and overcoming that `defect', of his first physical expression of love making, of encounters with celebrity literary people and those who falsely consider themselves celebrities, of the meaning of being placed on this planet and what to do with that luxury. He is at once deeply probing and almost unbearably hilarious. In truth, every page is a gem worth retrieving when we fear that the basic mentality of the world has forgotten the art of expression, of feeling. Some examples follow that will of course say it better than I:
`Language is what differentiates human beings from other species, so when I stutter, I find it genuinely dehumanizing. I still feel a psychic need to write myself into, um, existence. So, too, due to stuttering, I value writing and reading as essential communication between writer and reader. It's why I want writing to be so intimate: I want to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else, I know someone - I've gotten to this other person.'
He can wax hilarious as when he describes a dominatrix lover's language, or the manner in which we glue our minds to the vacuity of talk shows (his section on the host `Delilah' is comic relief extreme) or reality television, and countless other ways we waste the air with which we speak or through which we communicate. He can call upon quotes form famous writers and plug-into them; `Thoreau: "The next time the novelist rings the bell, I will not stir thought the meeting-house burn down.' I like are with a visible string to the world. Lucian Freud: "I've got a strong autobiographical bias. My work is entirely about myself and my surroundings. I could never put anything into a picture that wasn't actually there in front of me. That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness." My aesthetic exactly, for better and worse.'
And he can be acerbic about writers and literature: on being a judge for the National Book Award in 2007 he recalls the following - `And yet, in 1987, after the fiction panel didn't name Toni Morrison the winner, she approached the committee's chair, my former teacher Hilma Wolitzer, and said, "Thank you for ruining my life." If your life depends on winning an award chosen by a few people over lunch, there's something wrong with your life.'
Shields is all over the place in this book and that is what makes taking the journey with him so completely enjoyable. He closes with a poignant thought: `Language is all we have to connect us and it doesn't, not quite.....I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this - which is what makes it essential.' Grady Harp, January 13
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I was looking forward to this book with great anticipation, so some disillusionment was inevitable. I found some chapters difficult to follow, and re-read a lot, because I would find myself repeatedly in the middle of a page, with no idea what the writer was going on about. Often this happens because I am not paying attention, but in this book it happens because the author cannot stay on topic.
This is not a novel, nor a nonfiction tome, but a series of disconnected musings on life, literature, and meaning, told with lots of personal asides by the author. In fact his personal life and inner musings are not really asides, they are the main course.
The tone of the writer put me off. I don't have to like a writer or their writing to acknowledge ability, or greatness. David Shields has ability, but not greatness. He can be smug, as when he compares himself to Bart Giamotti (but as a parent, not as an actor). He can be creepy, as when he stole into his girlfriend's room to read her diary, not just once but repeatedly. Then he used that knowledge to woo her. He does not excuse this behavior, but he is not exactly penitential either. I simply could not trust this man.
In everything he thinks about it, analyzes it, exhausts it, until he becomes a bit like his own version of the greatest book ever written. Maybe I am not a good enough reader to appreciate this writer. This book was not for me, and I cannot recommend it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
How Literature Saved My Life follows Shields's Reality Hunger and while the latter seems to have received more positive reviews from Amazon readers, I prefer the new book. The writing is tighter; the themes are clearer; the subject is more engaging.
Those who have hyped the book point to its genre-bending and its honesty. The author is not constrained by preexisting rubrics and forms; he follows his own lights, uses his own examples, argues in non-linear fashion, and so on. At the same time he is unflinching in his honesty, discussing the details of his sex life, his stuttering and his strained family relationships.
It goes without saying that a book such as this skates along an edge. When you talk not just about such large issues as how literature saves (or doesn't save) lives but also about how all of these matters concern, focus on and center on, you, there is the ongoing risk that your discussion will strike readers as self-indulgent and arrogant. Those risks are here skirted, presumably, by the willingness to reveal personal details that are usually kept private. Nevertheless, there is a thin line between courage and vaunting. On balance, I like a writer who takes great risks. At the same time, I hear Samuel Johnson's warnings in the back of my head. When you presume to instruct the world, the world might be less than receptive because, implicitly, you are informing the world that you know things that it does not. In the case of memoir/analysis/confession you are assuming that your experience is sufficiently interesting and important to justify the world's acceptance.
Still and all, the book largely works. Shields is an astute reader who has read widely. That reading, however, always seems to be like the reading of contemporary students; it is largely confined to recent material and it contains material that, while clever, lacks weight. (It is one of his ongoing themes, of course, that the urgency and speed of contemporary media render older work obsolete or at least inaccessible.) In one extended discussion (pp. 140-156) Shields lists 55 works that he swears by. Except for Augustine's Confessions, Montaigne's Essays and Pascal's Pensées there is no material prior to the 19thc. We get Larry David's television series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, but no Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Sophocles, et al.
Throughout, we hear of the author's loneliness and his recurrent theme of man's awareness of his own mortality, but little or nothing on the faith that has animated many great writers and thinkers. It is as if the humanities proceed like the natural sciences. Questions of theology have been settled in the same fashion as questions concerning the existence of phlogiston. The universe is hollow and all religion a cheat or a variety of opium. That's settled. I am always deeply uneasy about `this is the way things are' arguments, particularly in an age which considers Miley Cyrus interesting and has little historical sense.
It is often unfair to adduce missing examples, particularly when the subject is so vast, but the subject is literature and how it can save lives (presumably, how, in Johnson's words, literature can help readers to better enjoy life or better endure it, a comment to which Shields refers). One might add: how literature can also help explain and clarify it. In the discussion of man's awareness of his mortality I was struck that there was no consideration of Swift's Struldbrugs, the characters who lose their youth but never die, one of Swift's points being that we should seek a full and complete and reasonably long life, but that earthly immortality would not really be to our taste.
I have always liked Kenneth Burke's wonderful essay, "Literature as Equipment for Living." Burke argues that literary characters, moments, topoi, etc. constitute a kind of language. In our literary memories are such things as the fidelity of Cordelia and the duplicity of George Wickham. They function as exempla and they provide us with a vocabulary for understanding and conceptualizing human situations. There is much recent discussion about how extensive storytelling may have provided an evolutionary advantage to hunter/gatherers who might be able to infer motives, read body language, etc. of other individuals--potential friends, potential enemies--who are suddenly encountered.
What I am suggesting is that a more `systematic' approach to Shields's subject might enjoy decided advantages, but then, of course, Shields's spontaneity, quirkiness and freshness might be lost in the process. Potential readers, however, should not approach the book expecting clear, hard answers. The book is much more of an essay, i.e., an attempt, a meditation, that goes well beyond free association but falls short of philosophic or historical rigor.
I found one passage quite interesting. Shields says (p. 79) that he has "trouble living anywhere other than in language. If I'm not writing it down, experience doesn't really register." Later (p. 134) he comments that perceivers alter what is perceived, that writers such as Boswell don't see the world; they make it up.
This is quite true, but also quite dangerous. Boswell tried to create his own immortality by freezing his experience in the pages of his journals. His experience of life was often suffused with literary fantasy. Walking through the streets of London 50 years after the fact he felt as if he was in the world of Mr. Spectator. As Hume lay dying, Boswell copulated with prostitutes in the streets below, attempting to reassure himself of his own vitality. Boswell--so passionate about faith that he contemplated conversion to Catholicism and so firm in his conservatism that he believed in slavery--his inability to keep life and art straight (as his idol, Johnson, could), contrasts strikingly with the measured maturity and peace of Hume, who was, of course, as we now say, a very `disruptive' thinker. Johnson, not entirely halfheartedly, famously said that no one but a blockhead would write, except for money. Some of the spirit of Johnson and some of the serenity of Hume could be prescribed by readers who wish to reassure David Shields.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2013
Before picking up this book I was familiar with David Shields, having read "Black Planet," "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You Will Be Dead," and "Reality Hunger" and a few other of his essays. Shields is both brutally honest emotionally and intellectually super-powered; for instance in "Black Planet" he combines a racial study of the NBA along with personal revelations that he imagines that he is as "long and lean" as Gary Payton while having sex with his wife.
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. He has a similar ability to render an entire novel to a single powerful sentence - so much so that even though I have read some of these works I'm left saying "wait that's the point of ___?" I also found it interesting when Shields says that the novel was created to "access interiority" (pg 129) but that social media is catching up and surpassing the novel in this regard.
The sparse nature of the book leaves the short memoir passages that much more powerful. In particular, the essay regarding Tiger Woods and how our strengths and weaknesses are indivisible from one another is particularly fantastic. Shields assembles a murderer's row of thinkers and writers to back his argument. Nabokov, Tolstoy, Pynchon, DF Wallace...quotations by all these writers are here in stripped form, rippling with intellectual power. I was a little surprised with how often the ghost of David Foster Wallace floated across the pages of this manuscript. But since Wallace was primarily concerned with literature as a salve for loneliness, Shields finds much common ground with him, though Shields apparently has no time for Wallace's novels finding that "...the game is not worth the candle." (pg 192). Wait, what? Your time is that valuable?
That's one of the reasons it is so tough for Shields to be representative for all readers when he's quite clearly allergic to plot or any literary devices at all. Shields believes that we are all terminal patients, so writers should just get to the point already. He doesn't want anything between him and the artist - just the artist on an autopsy table, laid bare for Shields to examine. He wants to know the secret of "...how the writer solves being alive."
I agree with Shields on a lot of points; hell, which one of us doesn't want to know how to live? That's what Franzen, an author Shields derided in "Reality Hunger," was examining in his latest book. As Shields tells us, writing should be the "axe to break the frozen sea within us" (Kafka), or the "bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness" (Wallace). At this, Shields only succeeds at moments, glancingly. I don't agree with his argument, and he talks about himself very little. Since most of this book is a a personal literary argument rather than personal memoir, I'm left with not much to connect to. So no matter how strongly he makes his case for collage and for the hollowness of the novel, I can't seem to meet him out on this abyss spanning bridge.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
The book is a sort of jigsaw puzzle slowly collecting its pieces and placing them together until a picture appears. Each of the pieces is about the author or literature or some related subject. We learn about the author's stuttering which gave him an intimate connection to the power of language, about his drive to supplant Shakespeare as the world's greatest writer, about his finding in reading an imperfect guide to the contours of his mind and the possibilities of the human imagination. David Shields has a highly congenial relationship with the English language, and if his jazz-like style is not for every reader, it is for everyone willing to take it on its own terms. It's rare that a book genuinely deserves the title unique. This is one of those books.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I had to settle on a neutral rating for this book because there are parts which are nothing short of brilliant, insightful, funny and engaging. Then there are the others which seem to stretch into a seemingly infinite discourse on some bit of minutia that drags on and on and on....
However, there is one group that should absolutely consider reading this book...writers. I do a fair amount of writing and immensely enjoy the authors take on where the field is heading. While some may criticize the author for the excessive amount of quotations, poor citations etc, he makes some excellent and valid points.
On the other hand, early on the author states that he finds it difficult to emotionally connect...truer words were never spoken. It is apparent in his writing. It's intellectual but not emotionally inviting. The book stimulates the mind but fails to make a connection. By the end of the book, I wondered if literature truly saved his life or destroyed it...you be the judge.