How Literature Saved My Life
by David Shields
"My own failure of imagination? Sure, but as Virginia Woolf said in a passage that I reread dozens of times in the fall of 1991, “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. This proves that a book is alive: because it has not crushed anything I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration.”" - David Shields
David Shields is a contemporary essayist and fiction writer. His first novel, Dead Languages, is notable, as are his collections of essays. I chose to read this book with the expectation that the main focus would be on literature. I was frustrated with some aspects of the book in the early going, but ultimately found Shields personal views on literature and its ability to save (or perhaps not save) his life to be challenging and valuable. Throughout the book he turns quotation, memory, anecdotes and considerations of film, literature, love and death into a collage that enables introspection.
Shields is as concerned with methods of construction and questions of genre as with subject, and in doing so he meters out nuggets of revelation amid explications of both classical and popular subjects, from Prometheus to Spider-Man. He uses a circuitous approach that sometimes frustrated this reader and may do so for others. However, his apparent failure to articulate the ways in which "life and art have always been everything" to him often proved fascinating to contemplate.
David Shields stuttered throughout childhood, and initially regarded writing as an ideal outlet; now, in his mid-50s with more than fifteen books to his credit, he writes “to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else,” he has connected with his readers. He uses a frequently self-deprecating yet engaging tone, while employing the act of accrual in hopes of guarding against “human loneliness,” and in doing so, creates a type of personal, modern version of a commonplace book. For readers like myself, references to authors such as Ben Lerner, E.M. Cioran, Jonathan Safran Foer, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso and David Foster Wallace, among others, may be interesting or even appealing. He mixes references to books while interpolating quotes as voices intersecting on the page. For readers unlike myself who are creative-writing practitioners, how Shield fashions his own anxieties and persona into brief essays provides an alternative model for writing on self-hood, revealing the his struggle in oblique ways.
The book defies easy categorization (as have others of Shields’ works): It is both a paean to the power of language and a confrontation with the knowledge that literature can't, after all, fulfill deeper existential needs. It is a work of contradictions, subversion, depression, humor and singular awareness; Shields is at his best when culling the work of others to arrive at his own well-timed, often heartbreaking lines. His list of "Fifty-five works I swear by:" is one of the most fascinating and useful sections of the book (Part 6, pp140-156). I would recommend this book for those who hope that reading literature may save your life and have the persistence or potvaliance to persevere when the book veers into unknown territory. The author always brings it back to literature.
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