How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields, Knopf, 207 pages, $25.95. It needs to be said after taking a step back and looking at what we’ve always liked to call The Big Picture. It also needs to be said baldly, not timidly: There is no more interesting writer at this precise moment than David Shields. With the publication of this book, I would now call three of his books among the most important we’ve seen in the last 15 years: “The Thing About Death is That One Day You’ll Be Dead,” “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” and now this, whose title is an exaggeration that is also a truth about Shields, among many others.
Let’s put it this way: If early 2013 has turned Shields’ contemporary George Saunders into a writer who must no longer be overlooked, one could, I think, say the same thing about Shields several times over. His nonfiction books are as much galvanizing electrical fields as those of David Foster Wallace were.
In one way, this is a wildly creative and eccentric memoir about a stutterer who triumphs through language and who, like George W. Bush (and in Bush’s own phrase), is appalled to be “negotiating against himself” – though Shields, like some sociable and extroverted version of Kafka turns it into the kind of living contradiction that helps define us all. Here is a man who is helped by astrology, in fact, to see kinship and banality with W.: “I remember him as a homebody, someone who doesn’t like to travel, travels with his pillow, is addicted to eight hours of sleep a night; so am I. In India, he wasn’t sufficiently curious to go see the Taj Mahal. I must admit I could imagine doing the same thing. … He pretends to love his father but he hates him. He pretends to admire his mother but he reviles her. Check and check.”
These aphoristic fragments, then, come from a man who knows what he wants from literature and is equally frank about where he finds it and where he doesn’t. His list of 50 admired books at the end of this is as logical and readable as his inventory of similarities to W. Is there another writer in America who could see W. in the mirror, at the same time that he posits the blisses of reading Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” and Leonard Michaels’ “Shuffle” along with Proust?
– Jeff Simon