In this wonderfully intelligent, stunningly honest, and painfully funny book, acclaimed writer David Shields uses himself as a representative for all readers and writers who seek to find salvation in literature.
Blending confessional criticism and anthropological autobiography, Shields explores the power of literature (from Blaise Pascal's Pensées to Maggie Nelson's Bluets, Renata Adler's Speedboat to Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past) to make life survivable, maybe even endurable. Shields evokes his deeply divided personality (his "ridiculous" ambivalence), his character flaws, his woes, his serious despairs. Books are his life, but when they come to feel unlifelike and archaic, he revels in a new kind of art that is based heavily on quotation and consciousness and self-consciousness--perfect, since so much of what ails him is acute self-consciousness. And he shares with us a final irony: he wants "literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this--which is what makes it essential."
A captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original way of thinking about the essential acts of reading and writing.
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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 ThompsonFrom the Author:
Samuel Johnson said that a book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it; my book aims to be theorem and proof of the last half of this equation. How Literature Saved My Life is simultaneously a praise-song to the saving grace of the act of reading and a candid acknowledgment that all criticism is self-portrait in a convex mirror. I aim to combine the strongest aspects of autobiography and criticism without succumbing to the characteristic pitfalls of either genre (respectively, narcissism and pedantry). How Literature Saved My Life undoes the imperial tone of my previous book, Reality Hunger--which Chuck Klosterman said "might me the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years"--and replaces it with a serious, intimate, unguarded sadness that I've never quite gotten to before. How Literature Saved My Life is a meditation on the fate of reading in the digital age, arguing for and embodying a way to read and write that is deeply intellectual and literary but not a retreat to the orthodoxies of the past. In a sense, my new book "solves" the problems that my previous book raised. How Literature Saved My Life is very passionate/optimistic about the possibility of contemporary work (including, I hope, my own) to capture what it feels like to be alive now.
Why did you write this book?
I wanted to explore and celebrate how literature has saved my life.
That's a pretty strong statement. Has literature really saved your life?
Yes. At every stage of my life, books, reading, writing have rescued me.
The most obvious example is that I was a boy who stuttered so badly that he came to worship words. In a lot of other ways, too, though.
After writing three novels, I grew disenchanted with the form, or it grew disenchanted with me. Novels very, very rarely give me what I want from literature. Samuel Johnson said that a book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it. The books I love aren't kidding around; they are manifestly exploring the meaning of existence.
What are some examples?
In my book, I rhapsodize about dozens of such books, but the book that is foremost in my mind right now is Simon Gray's four-volume Smoking Diaries, which I'm rereading now for the third time in five years. A man, whose friends are dying and who by the final book of the tetralogy is dying himself, stands before us utterly naked and takes account: Rembrandt's late self-portraits, in prose. Each entry is typically only a few paragraphs, the entries connect in beautifully oblique ways, and each volume is held together by an understated but brilliantly deployed metaphor. Having read the diaries, I feel less lonely.
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