Dead Languages:
A Novel




I understand that whenever Demosthenes got a little tongue-tied he’d leave Athens to camp out on the Mediterranean coast where, with pebbles in his mouth, he’d rehearse his oration against the sound of the Aegean Sea until his rather unGreek diffidence ceased and words became waves within him. Then he’d return to Athens to deliver a very authoritative, unhesitant speech which always concerned the sanctity of the Greek city-state and never received anything less than unrestrained applause from the rude multitude. The trip to the Mediterranean, the swim at sea, the favorable reception in the senate: it’s a delightful tale complete with moral in tow. And yet there are those—surely, Sandra, you are one of them—who will want to insist that Demosthenes, forced to flee Athens and lecture inattentive fish every time he was scheduled to speak about the city-state, should have drowned himself at high tide, whereas I’d want to emphasize that Demosthenes never left the coast until he was speaking so loud he could no longer hear the Aegean arriving on the rocks.

The big city boy, who hates the city, leaves the city to perfect a speech in praise of the absolute supremacy of the city. The audience, impatient to applaud, doesn’t perceive that the greatest orator in western civilization often speaks with seaweed sliding out his mouth. Why would someone for whom talking was torture want to talk all the time before thousands of Athenians? Because otherwise he’d have drowned himself at high tide. My sister—so shy, so sincere—once wanted to be an actress. The best jazz drummer I’ve ever heard had only one arm. We all choose a calling that’s the most radical contradiction of ourselves.



  • NEA fellowship
  • Washington State Book Award
  • California Book Award
  • PEN/Syndicated Fiction winner
  • New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship
  • Ludwig Vogelstein grant
  • Residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell
  • Ingram Merrill foundation award
  • San Francisco Foundation award



“A remarkable novel. A brilliant mixture of pitiless observation, excoriation, humor, love, and forgiveness.”
Robert TowersThe New York Review of Books

Dead Languages speaks to everyone who has ever struggled to articulate an emotion and failed to find the words…[from] the first such character to narrate his own story.”
Library Journal

“The style is rich, often beautifully lyrical. Mr. Shields is a talented writer, and in Dead Languages he explores fertile themes with intelligence and verbal energy.”
Eva Hoffman, The New York Times

“…a powerful work that remains in the reader’s mind long after its conclusion. Shields is a fine prose writer.”
Peter Handel, San Francisco Chronicle

“A beautiful book. Shields has an addition to language. What’s lovely about Dead Languages is that he uses the language he loves to convey the most poignant feelings, and to do with truth and beauty.”
Walker Percy