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How Literature Saved My Life
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How Literature Saved My Life

3.34  ·  Rating details ·  772 ratings  ·  154 reviews
Blending confessional criticism and anthropological autobiography, Shields explores the power of literature (from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Renata Adler’s Speedboat to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) to make life survivable, maybe even endurable. Shields evokes his deeply divided personality (his “ridiculous” ambivalence), his character flaws, his woes, his serious despaiProust’s ...more
Hardcover, 207 pages
Published February 5th 2013 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2013)
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Average rating 3.34  · 
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 ·  772 ratings  ·  154 reviews

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Apr 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
I didn't get it.

Like, at all. Maybe the author's analytical philosophizing was too intellectual for my brain. Or maybe there really wasn't much to get from the disjointed, reminiscent ramblings and literary musings of a burnt-out-from-life author. (Strangely though, I kind of want to try one of his other books...)

How can I describe this book? It was like peeking in the head of someone with severe ADD: "I really liked this one book because--hey guess what? I had a lot of s
Justin Evans
May 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: essays
I'm trying to write an actual paper incorporating my complaints about this book. For now, here's a first draft of those complaints. This is absolutely not the place for such a piece, but I don't want to write another version of it specially for goodreads:

David Shields, Art and Life’s Big Problems

The misuse of words

I, and people like me, get more pleasure from learning a thing’s name than from learning about the thing itself. When my then girlfriend offered me
Chad Post
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
David Shields's books have the power to change the way you approach all art.

"What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to most of us: birth, love, bad driver's license photos, death. What separates us is how each of us thinks about what happens to us. That's what I want to hear."

Building on Reality Hunger's polemical call for the lyrical essay--a blending of fiction and fact and autobiography and fraud--How Literature Saved My Life presents an a
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
`Chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling.'

How many times can we say after reading a book that we want to at the very least start back to page 1 and read it again, or at the other extreme, memorize it. But that is what happens after luxuriating in the prose of David Shields' newest book, HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE.

This is a series of thoughts and reactions and ruminations on language, on fellow writers, on love, on the process of thinking, o
Remember the 'Simpsons' episode in which Bart sold his soul? He dreamed of an afterlife that could only be reached by rowboat, and the rowboat was only functional and useful for reaching the afterlife to those whose doubles, their souls, accompanied them. Bart had no soul, no double, so his boat could only limp around in a sad circle. David Shields believes that literature is, like Bart Simpson's soul, both a reflection of one's self (for the reader as much as for the writer; he'll only accept l ...more
Apr 25, 2014 rated it liked it
How could I resist a book titled How Literature Saved My Life? I couldn’t and I didn’t. Of course, the title is a come-on; the book flap quotes Shields, who writes that he wanted “literature to assuage human loneliness but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.” Those words, I will later discover, are the last in the book. And it’s quite a journey getting there. Even though I end up rejecting Shields grim literary and world view [for ...more
maybe this didn't completely scramble my atoms as much as REALITY HUNGER, but even so, here's the thing...

We had just watched LIBERAL ARTS the night before I started this book. In it, there's this scene between the main character and this mopey, college kid, a conversation about INFINITE JEST, though the books is never named. A DFW aphorism is mentioned, and it haunted my entire reading of this book, even though it's not explicitly mentioned in connection to the book until very near the end..
Ted Burke
Feb 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
I have the book and I can't say that I was all that impressed. Shields has a good way with a phrase, but his inquiries into how we should write in the current time seems less revolutionary than they are notes for a memoir he should finally write. Writing about writing is a domain long established and I don't see Shields as the new Roland Barthes. What some see as dangerous ideas I see as someone stalling on the question as to whether he can develop his own thesis without a constant citation of b ...more
Mar 30, 2013 rated it it was ok
This book was... aimless. It's like the author saved little snippets of his own writing over the course of a decade and then compiled and published them. Granted, it was mostly book centric, but the title implies something about this book that it just doesn't live up to. The majority of it is filled with quotes from other authors and books, while Shields offers up a, "Yeah! Cool!" A lot of people seem to like this, though, which makes me wonder if maybe it's just because they think that if this ...more
Mark Stevens
May 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
All criticism is a form of autobiography. That’s the first line from “How Literature Saved My Life.” Every book recommendation says something about the recommender.

So I’m going to strongly urge that you read this book but don’t hold it against me if you don’t like it. I can’t imagine a breezier, easier way to think about good books and, just as much, why we read and what we expect to experience.

“How Literature Saved My Life” rockets along, mixing thoughtful bits of insigh
Feb 17, 2013 rated it really liked it

a myth is an attempt to reconcile an intolerable contradiction.
that is indeed likely. yet in furtherance of the ever-elusive reconciliation of contradictions (are there, in fact, tolerable ones to be found?), onward we go constructing new myths and narratives to ease or assuage our individual and collective cognitive dissonances. why escape if it's only to learn that outside the prison walls awaits another jail? the truth is often captivating (in the obsolete sense). myths needn't be mere stories; the more
Apr 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Not my cup of tea

In this series of essays author David Shields examines what he's learned from great literature--for this he includes texts as varied as Spiderman and ancient Greek drama--then applies it to his personal life and the general human condition. Since literature has also been an important part of my life--I studied the classic Great Books during my four years of college and reading has almost been a religion for me most of my life--I expected to enjoy this book, but it wa
Jayne Bowers
Apr 01, 2013 rated it liked it

Although my preconceived ideas about what this book was about were dashed right away, I found How Literature Saved my Life to be thought provoking, informative, and even amusing at times. The author kept my interest throughout the book, and one reason is because I never knew what he was going to say next.

Some of the things I particularly liked are the quotes from writers and philosophers, his honesty in writing about his own angst and observations, the tiny photographs at the beginni
Mar 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-2013
The best word I can think of to describe this book is arrogant. The only book worth reading anymore is the kind of book only I am currently writing. And even I am fighting everyone tooth and nail to let me write it. Shields has an overwhelming obsession with David Foster Wallace (it seems subtext to almost every line). There are some lovely turns of phrase and interesting ideas, but I spent most of the book wanting to punch the author in the face.
David Shields is a contemporary essayist and fiction writer. His first novel, Dead Languages, is notable, as are his collections of essays. I chose to read this book with the expectation that the main focus would be on literature. I was frustrated with some aspects of the book in the early going, but ultimately found Shields personal views on literature and its ability to save (or perhaps not save) his life to be challenging and valuable. Throughout the book he turns quotation, memory, anecdotes ...more
Apr 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads
Shields's eye-rolling hyperbolic assertions are irritating and sometimes just silly, but he makes me ask myself questions about what I look for in literature. I think he's correct that the fiction/non-fiction divide is arbitrary, and like him I prefer "windowpane" literature (Zadie Smith's term, if I'm not mistaken). But I can still tolerate/appreciate more fiction than Shields can: he's out there. When I listened to Shields give a Bat Segundo podcast interview for Reality Hunger a couple of years ago ...more
Phil Semler
Mar 31, 2013 rated it it was ok
I never met a contradiction I didn't like. That's Shield's premise. Of course, literature cannot save a life, not even his. Unless he makes a living from literature as a writer and teacher. I suppose that's a way. Shields acknowledges many don't have the patience or time or brain power or interest in literature anymore so it's dying, but his alternative the non-fiction/fiction postmodernist kind of book doesn't work for me. You can only read so much Geoff Dyer or Sebald or or watch Sherman's Wat ...more
Oct 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
A rambling tour through David Shields's neurotic, collagist mind. I found myself marveling that someone would be so embarrassingly, publicly candid, but I also respect the way Shields's mind works. Sheila Heti once said in an interview (I'm paraphrasing from memory) that fiction disgusts her—the process of coming up with fake people and putting them through made-up circumstances when there are real experiences and feelings available for mining. I thought it was a stupid comment at the time, but ...more
It is weird to read Shields' work nearly 30 years after being in one of his writing classes in the mid80s. Some of his touchstones remained, seemingly unchanged, after all that time. He is still obsessed with lists of things, which somehow makes me happy.

As for this book, I think it is a good, fast, interesting read, but I doubt it is for everyone. As much as anything a great mish-mash of other books about the purpose of art/literature and how to try to live life. If nothing else, I want to tra
Erin Rouleau
Jun 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant. I picked this up in a very cozy, charming bookshop in Stockholm and have loved keeping this by my bed and reading a page or two at a time ever since. It's premise is "nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this - which is what makes it essential." But while reading this, I definitely felt my own loneliness stalled.
Richard Bardon
Feb 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
All criticism is a form of biography.

This is how David Shields opens his new memoir novel collection of essays piece of criticism … book, How Literature Saved My Life. The only genre that David Shields’ work fits into—and he makes this abundantly clear through his written persona—is that of a book in the plainest sense. These are his thoughts, written down, bound (or—I suppose—scanned and PDF-ized), and sold through various online and brick and mortar retailers. In his previous work,
Sigrun Hodne
May 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, american
How literature might have saved the life of David Shields even if he can’t explain it yet -

I have finally read David Shields. He is one to read in our time – or isn’t he?

How Literature Saved My Life is a collage of thoughts, a collection of things David Shields enjoys reading, watching, and thinking about, assembled loosely by theme, with the overarching message that he loves literature.

I have noted that some critics praise him for
… his uncanny ability to tap i/>
Jun 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Mr. Shields understood that he was not alone when he read literature -

"When I can't sleep, I get up and pull a book off the shelves. There are no more than thirty writers I can reliably turn to in this situation, and Salinger is still one of them. I've read each of his books at least a dozen times. What is it in his work that offers such solace at 3:00 A.M. of the soul? For me, it's how his voice, to a different degree and in a different way in every book, talks back to itself, how it listens t
Patricia Murphy
Apr 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
I'll quote Shields from page 201 of HLSML to give what seems to me a clear theme for this book: "Stoicism is of no use to me. What I'm a big believer in is talking about everything until you're blue in the face."

And that's what HLSML does, much as Reality Hunger did. For Shields, literature is dialogue. He's not solitary in creating a book. He's entering a big conversation.

I recently watched this video called "The Amount of Stuff Our Bodies Make in a Year," and it seems to me that Shields' oeuvre manages thi
Feb 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
I'm giving this four stars because I like the writing, and because Shields does make some very witty, astute observations. But I have to say that it's not a four-star book overall. It's not even a coherent essay. As a collection of biographical moments, as a set of bits of memoir, there are some very well-done things here. But Shields has no overarching thesis here, and even in the final chapter, when he does purport to tell us "how literature saved his life", there's no real focus. There are so ...more
Apr 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
A really wonderful mix of personal essay and fanatical reading journal/lit-crit. David likes to champion the underdogs and the risk-takers in the world of fiction and memoir. It's a refreshing approach--he's not just spotlighting the contemporary favorites, he's digging deep and using his favorite obscurities and lesser-knowns as a mirror on his own work. My favorite parts: reading his girlfriend's journal in college, the similarities he has to George W. Bush, and his thoughts on Frederick Barth ...more
Jan 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Such dazzling intelligence and razor-sharp lucidity in such a small work. Filled to the brim with insightful comments about life/books/language/writing/mortality, I give it five stars in spite of the fact that I still radically disagree with Shields on the value and importance of "classically" written novels today. The book also added thirty more books to my "to read" list. Bliss.
Feb 10, 2013 rated it liked it
I love David Shields’ collage projects and I love that he loves David Markson and Renata Adler but just as in Vila-Matas I love only the passages where he's quoting others because just as in Vila-Matas the passages where he’s not quoting others are too often too clunky for my so-called taste.
Emad Attili
Aug 31, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2013-reads
it's Boring Boring Boring!
I'm glad I didn't buy it!
It has some beautiful lines though.
Nov 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this - which is what makes it essential."
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David Shields is the author of fourteen books, including Reality Hunger (Knopf, 2010), which was named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications. GQ called it "the most provocative, brain-rewiring book of 2010"; the New York Times called it "a mind-bending manifesto." His previous book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (Knopf, 2008), was a New York Times bes ...more
“Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it .” 14 likes
“IT’S HARDLY a coincidence that “Shipping Out,” Wallace’s most well-known essay, appeared only a month before Infinite Jest, his most well-known novel, was published. Both are about the same thing (amusing ourselves to death), with different governing données (lethally entertaining movie, lethally pampering leisure cruise). In an interview after the novel came out, Wallace, asked what’s so great about writing, said that we’re existentially alone on the planet—I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling, and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling—so writing, at its best, is a bridge constructed across the bridge of human loneliness.” 11 likes
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