The Thing About Life
is that
One Day You’ll Be Dead

Knopf, 2008



Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.

This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together—specially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.

This is my research; this is what I now know: the brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality, human beings as bare, forked animals, the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else’s body as well.

Accept death, I always seem to be saying.

Accept life, is his entirely understandable reply.

Why am I half in love with easeful death? I just turned 50. As Martin Amis has said, “Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you’re switching from saying ‘Hi’ to saying ‘Bye.’ And it’s a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death’s so apparent now, and it wasn’t apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn’t a reality.” So, too, for myself, being the father of an annoyingly vital 13-year-old girl only deepens these feelings. I’m no longer athletic (really bad back—more on this later). Natalie is. After a soccer game this season, a parent of one of the players on the other team came up to her and said, “Turn pro.”

Why, at 97, is my father so devoted to longevity per se, to sheer survival? He is—to me—cussedly, maddeningly alive and interesting, but I also don’t want to romanticize him. He’s life force as life machine—exhausting and exhaustive. Rest in peace? Hard to imagine.



  • New York Times bestseller
  • Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, TimeOut Chicago
  • One of the 25 best books of the year, Artforum
  • Best Reads of 2008, Salon
  • One of the 20 best nonfiction books of 2008, Seattle Times
  • One of 50 best books of the year, Amazon
  • Powell’s Books New Favorite, Staff Pick
  • BookSense Selection



“Many writers aim to capture the human condition in all its variety, audacity, and contradiction, but few can claim to get as close to their target as Shields. . . . [a] truly original vision brought to fruition.”
Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle

“Mix equal parts anatomy and autobiography, science and self-disclosure, physiology and family history; shake, stir. [S]immer over a low-grade fever of mortality. . . a terrible beauty of a book is born.”
Thomas Lynch, The Boston Globe

“Enthralling. . . . Fascinating. . . . Ultimately, the humanity of Shields’s interior and exterior exploration is what makes The Thing About Life—and life itself—worthwhile.”
Meredith Maran, San Francisco Chronicle

“An edifying, wise, unclassifiable mixture of filial love and Oedipal rage.”
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine

“Mr. Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer. Approaching the flat line of the last page, we want more.”
Stephen Bates, The Wall Street Journal

“A primer on aging and death for those who take theirs without the sugar. . . . There’s a comfort to be found in this sober investigation of mortality, in Shields’s clear-eyed look at the ways in which we come undone.”
Benjamin Alsup, Esquire