Good Minds Suggest—David Shields's Favorite Books That Could Save a Life

February, 2013

David Shields Memoirist, philosopher, provocateur—David Shields has created his own brand of confessional nonfiction. His writing is a pastiche of introspection, literary criticism, autobiography, and commentary. Best known for his 2010 work, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto—a 21st-century state-of-the-union for artists that argues that fragmented modern culture has rejected narrative fiction—Shields has also penned a dozen more works of nonfiction, including The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead and Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season. In his latest book of essays, How Literature Saved My Life, Shields reacts to his own role as a reader and writer. What does he read and why? The book seeks to understand language and discourse and along the way offers insights into a host of literary touchstones, from Proust to Spider-Man to Sh*t My Dad Says. The Seattle-based writer shares a list of life-changing, and possibly lifesaving, books.

"Ben Lerner's 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. Lerner's alter ego is obsessed with the 'incommensurability of language and experience' and our detachment from our own emotions. The question the book asks: Do we have a way out?"


"Maggie Nelson's Bluets is a brief meditation on the color blue, a cri de coeur about Nelson's inability to get over the end of a love affair, and a grievous contemplation of a close friend's paralysis. The book keeps getting larger and larger until it winds up being about nothing less than the melancholy of the human animal: Why are we so sad? How do we deal with loss, how do we deal with the ultimate loss? It's impressively adult—wrestling with existence at the most fundamental level—in a way that I find very few books are."


"Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate fluctuates wildly and unpredictably from Fusselman's attempt to get pregnant through artificial means to her conversations with her dying father to his World War II diary entries. I don't know what the next paragraph will be, where Fusselman is going, until—in the final few paragraphs—she lands on the gossamer-thin difference between life and death, which is where she's been focused all along, if I could only have seen it."


"In Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography does, and more important, it asks the following question: How and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways it's a thinking person's self-help book: how to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional. Dyer's conclusion: 'The best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence'; by getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning—and by not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence."


"In Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries, a man, whose friends are dying and who by the final book of this four-volume work is dying himself, stands before us utterly naked and takes account: Rembrandt's late self-portraits, in prose. The gravitation is very extreme to always make himself look bad, and in so doing, of course, he renders himself lovable. An entire life, an entire way of thinking, comes into being; having read the diaries, I feel less lonely."


"J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello eviscerates, chapter by chapter, a commitment (antiapartheid activism, animal rights, friendship, art, love, sex) that Coetzee, in previous books, had once affirmed. The 'novel' consists almost entirely of a series of lectures that Coetzee actually gave, but in the book it's a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. Coetzee/Costello is trying to find something that he/she can actually believe, and by the end of the book the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of the sound of frogs in mud: the animal life of sheer survival; I love how joyous and despairing that is—it's on the side of life but along a very narrow ledge."


"Sarah Manguso's The Guardians goes to hell and back, just barely back, and ends with a tiny glimmer of uptick—not too much but not too little, either. It's the only affirmation that anyone can offer: Astonishingly, we're here."


"David Markson's This Is Not a Novel is a sustained meditation on a single question: Against death, what consolation, if any, is art? Markson constantly toggles back and forth between celebrating the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity, and the book forces me to ask myself, What do I push back with? Maybe art, and if so, barely."


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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Tom (new)

Tom Brucia Nothing from the accumulated literature of the centuries in a variety of languages? His list is so parochial it makes me (mostly) sad. A bit shocked. A teensy-weensy angry.


message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve Tom wrote: "Nothing from the accumulated literature of the centuries in a variety of languages? His list is so parochial it makes me (mostly) sad. A bit shocked. A teensy-weensy angry."

A bit hasty on your judgement, Tom. The book is 224 pages long and he is not going to post the entire list of books on Goodreads. The book descriptions indicate that he includes many titles throughout history. I'm sure that these titles listed are newer titles that we might not have heard of or considered yet.


message 3: by Art (new)

Art Albanese The review of this poseur's egomaniacal self hype from a man burned out on so-called conventional narrative/fiction from NYT was convincing--a desperate and embarrassing attempt to be relevant beyond sophomoric iconoclastic bombast when the creative juices have long gone dead. As one Amazon reader noted, beware of the so-called fat and happy rebel bearing Rules. He is a blatant embarrassment to the Univ of Washington and they know it while I have always been advocate of shifting and remolding the lines of genre, of creative nonfiction, experimental fiction. No time for this blowhard: just read your Sebald who takes form to new possibilities in how he combines memoir, fiction, travelogue, history and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Yes, oh yes, spare us the rantings of academic theoreticians and their mind boggling pretensions. Shields is an exampe of the most egregious of his worthless kind. Read the real thing and skip the lost academic. So many books and so little time.


message 4: by Mona (new)

Mona Vine I have not read this book, but from the small excerpts here, I would not want to. As for D H Lawrence, if an author could make me want to kill myself, he would be the one to do it.


message 5: by Lee (new)

Lee Art wrote: "The review of this poseur's egomaniacal self hype from a man burned out on so-called conventional narrative/fiction from NYT was convincing--a desperate and embarrassing attempt to be relevant beyo..."

Sebald is an anagram of blades which should be applied to the wrist on completion of his so called narratives. Your character assassination is flawed in this respect.


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