How Literature Saved My Life by David ShieldsHow Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

How Literature Saved My Life

byDavid Shields

Hardcover | February 5, 2013

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“Reading How Literature Saved My Life is like getting to listen in on a really great, smart, provocative conversation. The book is not straightforward, it resists any single interpretation, and it seems to me to constitute nothing less than a new form.” ––Whitney Otto
In this wonderfully intelligent, stunningly honest, 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 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 raft, but when they come to feel un-lifelike and archaic, he revels in a new kind of art that is based heavily on quotation and 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.

DAVID SHIELDS is the author of thirteen previous 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 best seller), Black Planet (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award...
Title:How Literature Saved My LifeFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:224 pages, 8.71 × 5.88 × 0.91 inShipping dimensions:8.71 × 5.88 × 0.91 inPublished:February 5, 2013Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307961524

ISBN - 13:9780307961525


Read from the Book

PROLOGUE  IN WHICH I DISCUSS ANOTHER BOOK AS A WAY TO THROW INTO BOLD RELIEF WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT.   All criticism is a form of autobiography.   I’ve never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, since we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the next generation. Both of us went to Brown, have lived in Spain, are Jewish. I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and dreamier fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions   Ben’s most recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station, is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references to his childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of John Ashbery’s poetry (which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist parents (his mother is the feminist writer Harriet Lerner). I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as if he were Ben. Ben won’t mind!   His book—as what serious book is not?—is born of genuine despair. Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal.   Leaving the Atocha Station “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling,” a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station—to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another’s perspective, imagining “I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down.” He wants to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I. When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I mostly preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me—why I’m so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor—but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.   What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? I’ve lifted these two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem: he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a bottomlessly rich metaphor for all miscommunication. An unfortunate fact about stuttering—the subject of my autobiographical novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now—is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property, not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.   About the 2004 Madrid bombings—three of the bombs exploded in the Atocha Station—Ben says, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” He wonders if he’ll be the only American in history who visits Granada without seeing the Alhambra. While Spain is voting, he’s checking email. Easy enough to judge him. Harder to acknowledge the near universality of such lassitude. In the fall of 1974 I left the Bay Area to go to college in Providence, Rhode Island, which I imagined as, quite literally, Providence—a heavenly city populated by seraphic souls. I imagined Rhode Island as a literal island, the exotic edge of the eastern coast. And I saw Brown as an enclosed, paradisiacal space in which strong boys played rugby on fields of snow, then read Ruskin by gaslight in marble libraries too old to close, and girls with thick dark hair, good bodies, and great minds talked about Goethe (which I thought was pronounced “Goeth”) at breakfast. The first month of my first semester, black students occupied the administration building and demanded increases in black student enrollment and financial aid. These seemed to me laudable goals, so I went over to become part of the picket line outside the building and marched in a circle, chanting, for a few minutes, but the whole event felt like a really weak imitation of all the demonstrations I’d been going to since I was six years old, and I wanted to get away from groups and the West Coast and my former milieu for a while. A few people from my dorm were tossing around a Frisbee on the back side of the green. I left the picket line to go join them.   If Ben cares about “the arts,” it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf: “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He’s “unworthy.” Profundity is “unavailable from within the damaged life.” And yet he’s willing to say, somewhat begrudgingly, that Ashbery is a great poet: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. It is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it./You miss it, it misses you./You miss each other.’ ”   This is a lot. Still, is that the best art can do now—be a holding tank/reflecting pool for lostness? Maybe, maybe. Life’s white machine. The words are written under water. Ben has nothing to say and is saying it into a tiny phone. Why was he born between mirrors? Twentythree years older than he is, I’m in exactly the same mess. The question I want to ask, in the book that follows: Do I have a way out?

Editorial Reviews

Chosen as one of the most anticipated books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, Millions, and Flavorpill. A Salon Editor's Pick and Powell's Staff Pick.“Here is a mind on fire, a writer at war with the page. These rigorous, high-octane, exhaustive yet taut ruminations on ambivalence, love, melancholy, and mortality are like an arrow laced with crack to the brain. [Shields’] gun-to-the-head prose explicates an all-consuming passion for reading, writing, and ‘the redemptive grace of human consciousness itself.”--Kristy Davis, O, The Oprah Magazine“In this wonderful, vastly entertaining book, he weaves together literary criticism, quotations, and his own fragmentary recollections to illustrate, in form and content, how art—real art, the kind that engages and reflects the world around it—has made his life meaningful as both creator and beholder. Shields is an elegant, charming, and very funny writer. . . . Although his subject is himself, his instructions should prove useful—inspiring even—to all readers and writers.”—Eugenia Wiliamson, The Boston Globe "I'm grateful for How Literature Saved My Life because the book has made me think again--and for the first time in a while--'Well, what is it we do when we read?' It's a damned annoying question, but it needs to be asked now and then, and Shields has asked it in a way I find resonant and moving."--Andre Alexis, Toronton Globe and Mail"A generation from now, when we pick up our flex-tablets or digi-goggles or whatever and read about literature at the turn of the twenty-first century, there's a decent chance we'll see it referred to as the David Shields era."--Mark Athitakis, Barnes & Noble Review“Shields is a stunning writer. Within this book lies significant passion and revelation. . . . What makes for an amazing reading experience is the piecing together an argument from the fragments. . . . The guy is a maestro.” —The Huffington Post “Shields has an uncanny ability to tap into the short attention span of modern culture and turn it into something positive. . . . How Literature Saved My Life presents a way forward for literature in new forms.”—Kevin McFarlandThe A.V. Club “Eminently readable and surprisingly life-affirming. . . . Mr. Shields has written a great book, and one which matters. . . . Uncompromisingly intelligent, blisteringly forthright, and eschewing convention at every turn. . . . Mr. Shields is one engaging writer. His enthusiasm is contagious. He cares, deeply, about his subject.”—A. J. Kirby, New York Journal of Books “There is no more interesting writer at this precise moment than David Shields. I would call three of his books among the most important we’ve seen in the last 15 years: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and now this. His nonfiction books are as much galvanizing electrical fields as those of David Foster Wallace were.”—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News, Editor’s Choice “Shields has composed not a paean to the glories of narrative or language, but a work that sits somewhere between essay and memoir, resisting easy expectations. . . . altogether fascinating.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review “Quintessential genre-defying Shields. His writing gives you [a] sense of vertigo. It’s energizing and weird, and it works.”—Emily Gogolak, The Village Voice  “Shields’s ideas about literature come from a place of deep love; he’s not trying to destroy but rebuild what is already broken.” —Craig Hubert, ArtInfo “The future? It’s here.”—Jeff Baker, The Oregonian “I find David Shields unavoidable. A lot of that is a matter of style—I enjoy fragmentary writing, and few are more adept at it than he is.”—Guy Cunningham, Bookslut “Thoroughly rewarding.”—David Sexton, London Evening Standard “Smart, self-deprecating, and funny.”—Michael Heaton, The Plain Dealer “What else are you looking for that’s as real and interesting as another intelligent, articulate, bibliophilic human’s personal revelations?” —Wayne Alan Brenner, Austin Chronicle “[One of] our most genial essayists. . . . You read [Shields] for the zip of his consciousness.”—Michael Robbins, Chicago Tribune “An invigorating polemicist, as well as a subtle and amusing memoirist.”—Max Liu, The New Statesman (UK) “Both a boldly written love note to that most precious of subjects, and David Shields’s latest statute in his quest for ‘art with a visible string to the world.’” —James Fitze, HTML Giant “Shields has in recent years become a torchbearer of sorts for a group of contemporary writers who call for a more immediate and unmediated engagement with the reader, and who reject fiction as an obsolete craft.”—Ruth Margalit, Tablet