I Think You’re
Totally Wrong
A Quarrel

January 2015


One of Amazon’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of January 2015

Powell’s Bookstore Choice for January 2015

“Outrageously entertaining . . . a warm, funny, and charming book that questions not only what it means to live for art, but what it means to live.”—Saul Asterlitz, Boston Globe

“I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel (Knopf), by best-selling author David Shields (Reality Hunger) and a former student of his, current stay-at-home dad Caleb Powell, ingeniously captures their feisty debate about Art and Life. During a retreat at a cabin in Washington’s Cascade Range, the two longtime pals disagree on marriage, religion, sex, politics, happiness, film—and everything else—with passion, insight, and panache.”—Lisa Shea, Elle

“Shields and Powell keep waiting for ‘the flip,’ or the moment when their roles in the interview will reverse, or one will convince the other he is right, but each is so full of complexity and contradictions that it’s difficult to imagine if such a flip is possible. Like any good belletristic conversation, the authors discuss dozens of literary figures, books, movies, from novelists David Markson and Renata Adler to the movies Sideways and The Crying Game. And, like a true teacher, Shields is always pressing for the larger issue, questioning why art matters or how can suffering be alleviated. A worthy and important addition to the genre [book-in-dialogue], this casual conversation pushes readers to rethink fundamental questions about life and art.”—Publishers Weekly

“A stimulating intellectual interaction with lots of heart.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Shields and Powell approach their topics with clarity and wit, they poke and prod, they agree and disagree . . . an often contentious and always intelligent dialogue.”—Mark Levine, Booklist

“They capture an art-vs-life dialog they had on a retreat to a Cascade Mountains cabin. Look for the James Franco film. . . . How cool is this?”—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

“One weekend retreat when nobody was retreating.”—Barnes & Noble Review

“An impassioned, contentious, and ultimately contentious yet entertaining look at age-old debates about the life of the artist.”—Kevin Larimer, Poets & Writers

“I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel is a book borne from a four-day cabin stay, playing chess, going on hikes, watching My Dinner with André, and trying to deconstruct the very act of interviewing.”—Portland Mercury

“A one-of-a-kind dissertation on art and life.”—Jessie Stensland, Whidbey News-Tribune

“Dazzingly original and captivating.”—Inspireland

“ . . . always interesting . . . and completely compelling.”—Norman Boucher, Brown Alumni Magazine

“I read this book at compulsive speed, thoroughly engaged by the weekend and the argument—its unbuttoned fluency and candor. I’m envious of the sheer loquaciousness of the conversation and its no-holds-barred freedom (of speech). Both Shields and Powell have their own style of eloquence. The Art v. Life theme may have been the essential trigger for the book, but it becomes engrossing on a score of other fronts. The book is chock-full of the contingencies of life, which insist on one’s attention and have their own intricate mechanisms of suspense.”—Jonathan Raban

“This deeply personal book is a success. It’s quite daring in its confessional parts; confession makes sense only when it costs something, when it’s courting disaster. I found that risk-taking in this book, and it’s bracing.”—Peter Brooks

“I greatly admire I Think You’re Totally Wrong. There’s a sense that the reader can actually see David and Caleb talking, even though, obviously, we can’t. It’s like eavesdropping on a riveting debate/conversation, and sometimes we take one side, sometimes the other. One of the things I love most about the book is the tennis-match-in-slow-motion quality of the arguments, which make the reader question where she stands on the choices she might have made, and even continues to make. Looking back, should I have jettisoned my own work to do X, Y, or Z? At so many junctures in the book I wrote “yes” in the margins. I couldn’t put it down.”—Susan Daitch

“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this book, which is way more authentic than fiction or structured argument. It held my attention from start to finish, the narrative line is strong, the characters are developed in an intriguing way, it made me laugh hard at least several dozen times, and not necessarily at the jokes. The quarrel never turns into false drama because it doesn’t need to. It’s a human text, which is part of what Shields is trying to make clear; he’s one of the most interesting writers anywhere. He refuses to stop pushing boundaries.”—Brian Fawcett

“I devoured I Think You’re Totally Wrong and totally loved it. Brilliant.”—Meghan Daum

“I like how blunt Shields and Powell are with each other; sometimes I’m even a bit shocked by their comments. A riveting, discomfiting, always smart, sometimes really funny book that I enjoyed in a complicated and sometimes conflicted way. I think I’m a combination of the two of them, and I love the book for that reason; it so clearly helps me define what’s important to me. I try to mix my enjoyment of life with my dedication to art. The book is a tonic for me and an important work for all writers, as it so clearly delineates the conflicts we all have between family and art, even if these two realms needn’t be mutually exclusive. I love this book.”—Robin Hemley

“Much of the power of the book comes from the striking way in which Shields and Powell include what would normally be considered extraneous dialogue. Most writers editing a taped conversation would cut all the stuff around the ‘point’—in this case, an argument about life and art. But it’s the way in which the conversation about life and art is entwined with the details the two men’s lives and personalities that makes I Think You’re Totally Wrong so artful. This is a fascinating, fantastic book.”—Melanie Thernstrom

“Really hard to put down and a really brilliant idea and rendering: recording a weekend of intellectual dissonance between Shields and Powell. I think of it as a mode of performance art: Spalding Gray, only existentially bifurcated; a twelve-tone dialogue of unconcealment and contestation; the enactment of a perpetual state of not-being-at-home.”—Lance Olsen

“I loved this book and devoured it in one sitting; it’s an intriguing premise and a fascinating read.”—Matthew Vollmer

“This book uses conversation as a way to essay, to dig deeper, push into uncomfortable territory (so much wonderful stuff about Shields and Powell’s marriages and fatherhood!). I love how it switches so swiftly from private to public realms, how one gives way to the other. The David persona is always pushing Caleb toward a deeper probing of the relationship between self and other, and the Caleb character wants David to forgo the self, which (in my mind) is impossible. We crowd around what we crowd around.”—Jay Ponteri

“I stayed up late to read this (entirely sui generis) book in one gulp, since it’s impossible to stop reading. It’s very compelling in a way that is, for me, indescribable. It’s smart as hell; it’s a sort of anatomy of smartness, maybe an object lesson in its pleasures and potential for crisis, even tragedy.”—Robert Clark


Readers’ Guide


Caleb has heard life himself; David has told it, himself, to himself. The two have trodden different paths. David is a professor and the bestselling author of sixteen books; Caleb, a former student (of David’s) whose artistic merits still sit unlicensed; each man is married and a father. But what does all this truly mean in the wilderness in which they find themselves–quarreling for four days about everything from literature to politics to genocide to family to porn to religion?

While David’s path to redemption lies in self-mockery, in his willingness to acknowledge his own faults, exposing and exploiting the deepest, darkest and the most shielded of secrets, Caleb looks out at the countenance of the suffering world, hoping to recognize and in turn exploit its agony.

Art or life–Where do you draw a line? The task of existence turns out to be far greater than either David or Caleb expected.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong exhibits in its theatricality the volatile task of being human; being human is a grand, precarious carnival with an irreducible quarrel at its incandescent center.



  1. How do you differentiate David’s imagined experiences from Caleb’s lived experiences? In a literary sense and in other words, is one capable of placing ‘a jar in Tennessee’ without the jar and/or Tennessee?
  1. As Caleb’s question, Who’s lived the more interesting life? meets David’s answer, I don’t accept the premise of the question, what critical subquestions are ignited?
  1. What do you think David is getting at when he says to Caleb, I think you’re very smart but underneath that you’re stupid, whereas I’m very stupid but underneath that I’m very smart?
  1. How do you reconcile Chomsky’s statement (with which David apparently agrees) that the United States is an incredibly flawed and also the freest country on Earth?
  1. Is Caleb right to dismiss altogether Chomsky’s inquiry as demagogy due to certain historical inaccuracies or orientations to which the philosopher subscribes?
  1. What do you think is the responsibility of the intellectual in today’s society?
  1. Analyze the following postulate of Jonathan Lethem’s, which David quotes. “It seems to me a politics of consciousness and a politics of awareness are so lacking in most of what are considered to be political viewpoints that I’m not sure I want to call it politics. Before I can begin to discuss the kind of questions that people normally call ‘politics,’ I would have to solve perceptual and mental and emotional confusions that seem to me to so surround every discourse that I certainly haven’t gotten anywhere close to ‘politics’ yet.”
  1. David (whose experience is largely literary) notes how there’s something rather banal the closer you move to the suffering itself. Yet, at a distance, what are a hundred million deaths? Camus’s answer to this (his own) question is that since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. In what sense has the Khmer Rouge become a platitude? In other words, how attainable/graspable are its parameters, its magnitude?
  1. Life or Art? Life before Art? Art unto Life?
  1. David accuses Nabokov’s language of phoniness; Caleb forgives it as long as it’s part of an intelligent, substantial inquiry. But how sharp of a division really exists between content and form?
  1. David: You see Bush as simply misguided? Caleb: I find him genuine. Take some time to ponder over Caleb’s answer. Take some time to consider how language fails us.