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How Literature Saved My Life

Cover of How Literature Saved My Life

How Literature Saved My Life

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"Reading How Literature Saved My Life is like getting to listen in on a really great, smart, provocative conversation. The book is not straightforward, it resists any single interpretation, and it seems to me to constitute nothing less than a new form." --Whitney Otto

In this wonderfully intelligent, stunningly honest, painfully funny book, acclaimed writer David Shields uses himself as a representative for all readers and writers who seek to find salvation in literature.

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 despairs. Books are his life raft, but when they come to feel un-lifelike and archaic, he revels in a new kind of art that is based heavily on quotation and consciousness. And he shares with us a final irony: he wants "literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this--which is what makes it essential."

A captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original way of thinking about the essential acts of reading and writing.



From the Hardcover edition.

"Reading How Literature Saved My Life is like getting to listen in on a really great, smart, provocative conversation. The book is not straightforward, it resists any single interpretation, and it seems to me to constitute nothing less than a new form." --Whitney Otto

In this wonderfully intelligent, stunningly honest, painfully funny book, acclaimed writer David Shields uses himself as a representative for all readers and writers who seek to find salvation in literature.

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 despairs. Books are his life raft, but when they come to feel un-lifelike and archaic, he revels in a new kind of art that is based heavily on quotation and consciousness. And he shares with us a final irony: he wants "literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this--which is what makes it essential."

A captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original way of thinking about the essential acts of reading and writing.



From the Hardcover edition.
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    PROLOGUEIN WHICH I DISCUSS ANOTHER BOOK AS A WAY TO THROW INTO BOLD RELIEF WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT.

    All criticism is a form of autobiography.

    I've never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, since we're interested in each other's work. In my case, "interested" is a bit of an understatement. I'm obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the next generation. Both of us went to Brown, have lived in Spain, are Jewish. I wasn't born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and "critics." Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and dreamier fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the "incommensurability of language and experience" and our detachment from our own emotions

    Ben's most recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station, is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references to his childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of John Ashbery's poetry (which includes the poem "Leaving the Atocha Station"), his poet friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O'Brien, his psychologist parents (his mother is the feminist writer Harriet Lerner). I'm going to go ahead and treat the novel's narrator, Adam, as if he were Ben. Ben won't mind!

    His book--as what serious book is not?--is born of genuine despair. Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are "so many suicide notes." If the actual were ever to replace art, he'd swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can't believe in poetry, he'll close up shop. You and me both, pal.

    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. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station--to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another's perspective, imagining "I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down." He wants to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I. When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I mostly preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. "What's the matter with you?" my father would ask me. "You should be out there playing. You shouldn't be watching." I don't know what's the matter with me--why I'm so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor--but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.

    What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader's projections? I've lifted these two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The nature of language itself is a major part of Adam's problem: he's unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a bottomlessly rich metaphor for all miscommunication. An unfortunate fact about stuttering--the subject of my autobiographical novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now--is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not...

About the Author-
  • DAVID SHIELDS is the author of thirteen previous books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (New York Times best seller), Black Planet (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award). He has published essays and stories in dozens of periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper's,The Village Voice, The Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and The Believer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

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