Literature Saved
My Life

Knopf, 2013


“Here is a mind on fire, a writer at war with the page. ‘I’ve sacrificed my life for art,’ says David Shields in an astutely titled, contrarian collage, How Literature Saved My Life. At age 56, Shields, the author of 13 books, seems to be asking, ‘Is that all there is?’ And yet 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 draws on popular culture from Greek tragedies to Spider-Man to the essays of David Foster Wallace, while delving into how these works have shaped him. The associative thoughts leap, crawl, wail, and thrash about in an interior mindscape that’s loaded with aphoristic asides, as his 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

“Does How Literature Saved My Life live up to Shields’s expectations? In a word: yes. 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. If this sounds pedantic or self-aggrandizing, it isn’t, though it very easily could have been. Shields is an elegant, charming, and very funny writer who undercuts anything that comes close to a pronouncement. Although his subject is himself, his instructions should prove useful — inspiring, even — to all readers and writers.”–Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe

“Concise, fearless, urgent. A soulful writer, a skillful storyteller, and a man on the hunt for the Exquisite. Shields is also, in a writerly sense, as brave as they come. Shields’s brisk, hyperintellectual self-consciousness may actually represent some kind of perfect balance—a new poetics for our ADD, post-Great-American-Novel, homiletic, unprivate, reality-gobbling generation. Shields writes with an urgent passion that makes books (sometimes dusty books) come alive. Demonstrating, even inciting, that passion is expressly what Shields is up to in his new book.”–Minna Proctor, Bookforum

“The book it reminded me of most is Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life. Like Miller, Shields manages to convey his affection for and admiration of literature, and that, the enthusiasm and admiration, can revitalize the reader’s love for the art form. 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, Toronto Globe and Mail

“Shields is a stunning writer. Within this book lies significant passion and revelation.”–Huffington Post

“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. … What Shields has been lobbying for is a sex-on-the-first-date abandon in literature — writing that’s intimate, a little emotionally arrogant, and in a hurry.”–Mark Athitakis, Barnes & Noble

“Editor’s Pick. What makes us read and write when it is harder than ever to ‘only connect’? Examining our relationships with books.”–Salon



The movie director Bryan Singer, the friend of an acquaintance, sat in first class next to George Bush on a flight home from Korea. Asked by my acquaintance what they talked about, Singer said, “I began to understand why everybody liked him, and I liked him, too.”

“Really?” my acquaintance asked. “Yeah, I did.”

“Did you challenge him on anything?”

“No, ’cause everyone was really nice. Bush got up and talked to everyone in first class for a long time—‘Whaddayou do?’ ‘What are you up to?’ That sort of thing. He was a great guy, very gregarious.”

A Korean dentist pulled out his camcorder and panned from King Kong on a large screen over to Bush reading on his Kindle, then over to Singer’s assistant, who pointed and said, “It’s George Bush!” Then back to Bush. Back to King Kong. The Korean dentist was more interested in the director of X-Men than in Bush, who sensed that Singer was gay and made what Singer perceived to be a friendly joke: “Let’s introduce our assistants and maybe they can have sex!” Bush said he was going to take a nap and asked Singer if he wanted an Ambien; when Singer said he was off Ambien now, Bush replied, “Well, I’ve been using it for years. It keeps me on schedule.” My acquaintance said Singer said Bush simply understands how the world now works; with his friendly manner he gets what he wants, and he’s at peace with everything. Singer said the camcorder video was the best film he saw all year.

What I would give to see this film.



Readers’ Guide

Can literature save lives? For David Shields, the answer is yes and no. Blending literary criticism and anthropological autobiography, Shields explores the power of literature to make life survivable in the face of chronic contemporary numbness and isolation, even as it often fails to achieve this goal. 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, consciousness and self-consciousness—perfect, since so much of what ails him is acute self-consciousness. Structuring his book in eight chapters broken into subsections, Shields takes us through a life permeated by existential loneliness but punctuated by intense moments of feeling, often as a result of the art he holds so dear—art that he then also describes and critiques along the way. By getting as personal as possible, Shields seeks to tap into that which is felt within all of us—something that should be literature’s ultimate goal. 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.”

1. Shields’s friend Michael remarks to him, near the end of the book, that “Literature never saved anybody’s life.” Shields responds that “it has saved mine—just barely, I think.” Do you think Shields mean this literally? Do you personally think literature, or art more broadly, can save lives?

2. One major tension of the book is Shields’s devotion to language even while admitting that it’s never quite able to communicate one’s essence. “Language is all we have to connect us,” he writes, “and it doesn’t, not quite.” Do you personally think that language is ever truly successful, or is it doomed to failure, as Shields believes?

3. Toward the end of the book, Shields quotes Samuel Johnson, who wrote, “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.” Shields believes that the second path is the only one worth pursuing. What do you think? Does art that lets us “escape existence” have value today?

4. Throughout the book, Shields describes both works of literature he’s read and books that he’s written. What is the relationship between creating and consuming art, for Shields? For you? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is it more complicated?

5. To what extent could you relate to Shields throughout the book? Do you have the same difficulties with loneliness, anxiety about death and love, and belief about the redemptive power of art?

6. Shields spends a portion of book arguing for a particular literary aesthetic: based in collage, extremely personal, dispensing with artifice, etc. At the same time, How Literature Saved My Life is an embodiment of that very aesthetic. What do you make of this self-reflexivity throughout the book? Of Shields’s aesthetic more generally? Do you agree with him that there’s no use for traditional artistic forms any more?

7. The first chapter of the book is called “Negotiating Against Myself.” One of the section titles that appears the most frequently is “Negotiating against ourselves.” What does it mean to negotiate against oneself? How does Shields do this throughout the book?

8. Desire is one of the biggest themes of the book, especially the way that desire evaporates as soon as we get what we’re seeking. As a result, we’re never content with what we have. Do you think it’s possible to truly be content in life? What role does art play in this dynamic?

9. In the final chapter of the book, Shields argues that literature needs to engage with new technology in order to remain potent and relevant. What do you think is the relationship between literature and technology right now? Do you think the internet, social networking, and other advances have had an impact on literature? What about the impact of the web on art more generally?

10. In the chapter “Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief,” Shields discusses the severe difficulty of living in the face of the prospect of inevitable death, especially without religion. He writes, “In the absence of God the Father, all bets are off. Life makes no sense. How do I function when life has been drained of meaning?” What do you think is the relationship between art and religion in contemporary society? Can art serve as a “replacement” for religion? Do you think it functions this way for Shields?

11. For Shields, both love and art stem from the elemental desire to connect with another person in a world defined by loneliness. In love, for Shields, this pursuit frequently fails. Does art turn out to be more successful than love in this particular respect? What do you think about this idea? Do you feel that you are connecting with others when experiencing or creating art?

12. The final thought of the book is that literature fails—as does everything else—to assuage human loneliness, but the fact that it acknowledges this failure is what makes it essential to life. What do you make of these two ideas: first, that nothing can assuage loneliness, and second, that literature is capable of expressing that idea?