Review: ‘How Literature Saved My Life’ by David Shields

how literature saved my life_shields_bookcoverIt’s been a day since I finished reading David Shields’ “How Literature Saved My Life” and I’m still not sure what I think of it.

I initially picked the book from the Chicago Public Library’s e-book lineup because (1) it’s about how literature saved his life and (2) I didn’t have wait for the e-book to become available. So I dove in, excited to see how literature saved (or apparently didn’t save) Shields’ life.

There were many passages that struck a chord. Here are a few of the many I highlighted:

– “I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property, not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.” (5)

– “Hemley defines being human not as knowledge of mortality or as the ability to laugh but as the capacity to break out of your routine. Am I still capable of the later?” (73)

– “There are hundreds of books in the history of the world that I love to death. I’m trying to stay awake and not bored and not rote. I’m trying to save my life.” (167)

– “Do I love art anymore, or only artfully arranged life?” (183)

In chapter six (“All Great Books Wind Up With The Writer Getting His Teeth Bashed In”), I bookmarked the 55 works that Shields swears by in the hopes that I’ll write all of them down for future reference, added to one of my many reading lists scattered in my computer files and journals.

But mostly throughout reading this book, I didn’t feel like I was smart enough to be reading it. That seems crazy to me, that I don’t think I’m smart enough to be reading it. Now, I don’t consider myself to have an IQ high enough to be a Mensa member, but I like to think I have the brains to comprehend a confessional autobiography. Right?

Maybe it was his writing style, which was small vignettes combined together into chapters (Shields spends a few pages talking about the collage style of writing, which I could only assume this was how he wrote this book). Maybe it was how the different narratives and thoughts jumped around and weren’t collected all together. Maybe it was all the contemporary book references that I didn’t quite pick up on. Maybe it was the way he analyzed and wove the books into the story of his life.

I’ve sat here for the past hour writing this review, and I still cannot figure out what I think of this book. I doubt waiting any longer will bring any part of it into clarity.

But Shields’ final paragraph hits the nail on the head:

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. (207)


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