How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

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




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, my aesthetic spawn. 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 passive 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 well-known feminist writer Harriet Lerner). I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as he if 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 actually 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 my father was right: 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 close approximation of the incomprehensible human flux. 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 an actual 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 “Go-eth”) 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. 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? Twenty-three 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?

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?