How Literature
Saved My Life

Knopf, 2013


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.



  • Chosen as one of the most anticipated books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly,, and Flavorpill
  • Salon Editor’s Pick
  • Powell’s Staff Pick



“Here is a mind on fire, a writer at war with the page. . . . 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’] gun-to-the-head prose explicates an all-consuming passion for reading, writing, and ‘the redemptive grace of human consciousness itself.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“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. Shields is an elegant, charming, and very funny writer. . . . Although his subject is himself, his instructions should prove useful—inspiring even—to all readers and writers.”
The Boston Globe

“Shields is a stunning writer. Within this book lies significant passion and revelation. . . . What makes for an amazing reading experience is the piecing together an argument from the fragments. . . . The guy is a maestro.”
The Huffington Post

“Shields has an uncanny ability to tap into the short attention span of modern culture and turn it into something positive. . . . How Literature Saved My Life presents a way forward for literature in new forms.”
A.V. Club

“Eminently readable and surprisingly life-affirming. . . . Mr. Shields has written a great book, and one which matters. . . . Uncompromisingly intelligent, blisteringly forthright, and eschewing convention at every turn. . . . Mr. Shields is one engaging writer. His enthusiasm is contagious. He cares, deeply, about his subject.”
New York Journal of Books

“There is no more interesting writer at this precise moment than David Shields. I would call three of his books among the most important we’ve seen in the last 15 years: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and now this. His nonfiction books are as much galvanizing electrical fields as those of David Foster Wallace were.”
Jeff Simon, Buffalo News, Editor’s Choice

“Concise, fearless, urgent. A soulful writer, a skillful storyteller, and a man on the hunt for the Exquisite. Shields is, in a writerly sense, as brave as they come. A giant, thrilling ride.”

“Shields has composed not a paean to the glories of narrative or language, but a work that sits somewhere between essay and memoir, resisting easy expectations. . . . altogether fascinating.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“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, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Thoroughly rewarding.”
London Evening Standard

“Smart, self-deprecating, and funny.”
The Plain Dealer

“An invigorating polemicist, as well as a subtle and amusing memoirist.”
The New Statesman (UK)

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