David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life, Knopf, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Walker

[Review Guidelines]

I was in a bad place. My agent had dumped me. The book I'd been working on for years had been deemed too metaphorical. I was watching episode of episode of Chopped on the Food Network and thinking a) I should have listened to my mother and gone to culinary school and b) if literature achievement was a game show, I would have been chopped long ago.
     And then I received an early, early draft of How Literature Saved My Life. I was working on another book that may or may not go anywhere. My friend and would-be fellow editor, Margot Singer, and I wanted to include an essay by Shields so I asked him if I could do a riff on his book. And in so riffing, I got out of my self-pitying head and into the head(s) of writers who remind you that the writing itself is the thing and sure, maybe it will see the light of day, maybe it won't but here are the reasons that you write: to save your life. To save you from yourself. To give yourself other people's words so you don't choke on your own. It's not all about you and here is some writing by people who worried they were dying too. Life is despair. Writing is despair. But, when you put them together, something like hope burbles to the surface.
     In the first pages of the book, talking about the poet Ben Lerner, Shields writes, "His (Lerner's) book—as what serious book is not?—is born of genuine despair." How much joy is in that sentence? Shields, with his dashes, his questions, his genuine despair says, listen, reader. I'm in the trenches with you. This life is full of entrails and godless foxholes and a sand-grain-counting kind of futility, he seems to say. Buck up! I'm here. Come into my dashes. Answer my questions. Write about me and I'll write about you and we'll make it clear that writing is not about real life. That it is real life. Even if that real life takes place in the dashes and margins of books.
     Shields begins with some examples of how writers abstract themselves from the nitty-gritty of the trenches. Ben Lerner writes about how he hung out in the safety of the Ritz Carlton as bombs exploded just a few kilometers away from him at a train station in Madrid. Shields himself tells his own story of him, outside of the business of life, busy observing it from afar. As a kid, a good baseball player, he still preferred to watch from a distance. "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—".
     Writers are always at a remote. Not in the action, observing the action. The book goes on to watch from a writerly distance how culture reveals itself as already written, a book for us to scribble in the margins of: Spiderman, Supernanny, Beethoven, the reading of his girlfriend's journal as a manual for how to date her better, "hoping beyond hope that there was life in this book, that books could be my life." What is better than writing a book? Being is a book. Being named in a journal. Art is life, he argues. "We are all so afraid. We are all so alone. We all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist" (61). Any book assures our reality—fiction, poetry, nonfiction. You know you exist because you're right on the page.
     How Literature Saved My Life performs a bit of Reality Hunger's argument that we are all an amalgam of books, thoughts, ideas but the brain can only have one thought at a time. In art, you reach one idea at a time toward that amalgam. Even though "the narrative is never not getting at the frenzy of the visible," as he writes about a Jonathem Lethem novel. Shields teases out thought from book from experience and then lets it crescendo in the last line, as if it were all meant to come together somehow. Getting a blowjob, stuttering, reading Nabokov. These are all the same activities. Put them together and right them down and there's the life you were hoping to save.
     Max, my three-year-old, whenever I try to take video of him, crawls over to my lap, saying, "I want to see." Max would like to be able to see himself on video right now. He doesn't want to watch the movie later. He wants to see it right now. I tell him he can't. We can record it and look at him on the screen later but you can't do both right now. Essays are one of the few arts in which you can see yourself while simultaneously experiencing the world. In fact, it's one of the few experiences where writing and experiencing are the same thing. The idea is: what do I look like when I'm watching myself? How do I act? How does my typing make me act weird? How does my reading make me act like I'm writing? David Shields' How Literature shows you—this is what it looks like.
     Shields is willing to put his assholeish tendencies on the page. "It's not enough for me to succeed—all my friends must fail" (74), but then he's willing to put some thought into why he's such an asshole. Thinking about why he hoped that Tiger Woods had really been injured, "I was disappointed that Tiger was okay (for the nonce). But, really, I think we all were....Am I uniquely horrible?...Later on, what was completely absent from all the coverage of Tiger Woods's self-destruction was even the slightest recognition that for all of us the force for good can convert so easily into the force for ill, that our deepest strength is indivisible from our most embarrassing weakness, that what makes us great will inevitably get us in terrible trouble" (75).
     Because not all writers are good people is one of the ways to read this. Another way is read self-aggrandizement by way of self-deprecation. But another way to read this it's not just writers who need to be in on the page, but everyone. It's not just writers who are together in their remoteness. The Nanny. Spiderman. Beethoven. Tiger Woods. Wanting Tiger Woods to suffer is a way of inviting Tiger Woods to stay on the page a little longer. I have whole sentences devoted to you Tiger. You exist. You are saved.
     There's an argument to be made Shields includes gratuitous fantasy in his book. When he writes of the best sex ever and an old girlfriend who would "rub her breasts together, lick her lips, run her hands through her hair, encouraging me to pull harder on her choke collar" (63), I think of his wife, Laurie, when I read these things, wondering what does Laurie (who he mentions several times by name) think about this being the sex memory most grooved in his sex-driving hypothalamus? But it seems to be the performative aspect that strikes him as important. The idea that this girlfriend could imagine herself riding on top of David Shields while simultaneously riding on top of David Shields, like she was in the movie of her life, filming it and acting it and watching it all at the same time. Who wouldn't be turned on by that? And isn't that the nonfiction? Watching Shields watch her as she watches herself as you watch? Don't you feel like you're in the room?
     And I suppose there is the other complaint that he puts too many books out too quickly. This book has similarities with Reality Hunger. For all I know, he's incorporated just as many quotations from other books into his own writing in this book as he did there. But I don't care. As in Reality Hunger, I'm reminded of all the books I've read, and all the thoughts I've had and all the books I'm going to write. "Repetition is a specialty of simultaneity. Plus, in the darkest of times, when you don't really think you have anything to say to anyone and are sure there is no one out there willing to listen, hearing in your ear at night as you read by the thin light of the desk lamp."
     You will hear David Shields casting himself into your life. And you are casting yourself into David Shields' life. And also Proust. And Ben Lerner and Rick Moody. Sure, it's a bit boysy but you're not the only girl in there. In fact, you're a girl in there who is at the same time seeing herself in the company of writers, seeing herself alone watching the writers, both men and women—Jayne Anne Phillips and David Foster Wallace, Amy Hempel and Milan Kundera, Annie Dillard and D.H. Lawrence—write, seeing the writing of a thousand years come out of your mouth back onto David Shields' page. And if that doesn't save your life, then knowing that there is someone else who doesn't get the narrative of narratives, who thinks the word itself is both a godsend and a desperate failure, who believes the self can only be accounted for in relationship to other book-filled selves, who thinks the micro essay and the micro read might be the way of the future and is OK with that, just might. You're still here anyway. You can tell because you're still typing.
     A haiku:

Today. Nearly died.
Then, read Shields' book a' book.
A frog jumped into my mind.