How Literature Saved My Life

David Shields, Author
David Shields. Knopf, $25.95 (210p) ISBN 978-0-307-96152-5
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Title notwithstanding, Shields (Reality Hunger) has composed not a paean to the glories of narrative or language, but a work that sits somewhere between essay and memoir, resisting easy expectations. Though it is about books, Shields's focus (if it can be called focused at all) is squarely on the contradictions and impasses inherent to literature and language. He comes at his topic askance. Winding through personal anecdotes, some literary criticism, and yes, some praise of beloved texts, the short passages that make up the book sometimes hang together in a traditional rising-action manner and other times they're intentionally erratic. The book teaches the reader how to read it and the result is a slow but intriguing accrual of ideas, which ends up feeling simultaneously irksome and captivating as well as truer than a more straightforward telling might have been. This is both the work's strength and raison d'etre. Shields, as narrator, comes off as terrifically self-involved, extremely well-read, and altogether fascinating. We seem to know him pretty well by the end—we've been tussling with him all along—even though at the same time we understand how compromised this knowing must be. We are saved and not; the literature doesn't become transcendent, just the best tool available. (Feb.)
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