“What I’m a big believer in is talking about everything until you’re blue in the face.” — David Shields
How Literature Saved My Life is a book length essay, the form for which Shields passionately argued in his last book, Reality Hunger. Literature doesn’t draw a line in the genre sandbox quite like its predecessor, but it’s a compelling companion piece. (It also has insights into reactions to Reality Hunger. See chapter five.)
One of the book’s blurbs is from a writer named Whitney Otto. “Reading How Literature Saved My Life” is like getting to listen in on a great, smart, provocative conversation.” I agree but I’d tweak Otto’s blurb. Reading How Literature Saved My Life is like taking part in that great, smart, provocative conversation. Shields traffics in high brow discourse but does so in clear accessible language (in that sense he reminds me of Neil Postman or Kurt Vonnegut). He wants people involved in the discussion. He also clears that most difficult of challenges for the essayist, writing about himself in a manner so personal that readers, or this one at least, reflect on themselves as they sift through the details of Shields’ experience. It’s all about him on the page but it’s all about you in the end.
As the title suggests How Literature Saved My Life is largely about Shields’ favorite reads and the ways in which they’ve impacted him. (Chapter six, “All Great Books Wind Up with the Writer Getting His Teeth Bashed In,” contains a great list called “55 Works I Swear By.”) What I found most interesting about the book is how broadly he defines literature. Along with books he weaves in emails, a college girlfriend’s diary, a note written in the back of a library book he’s checked out Delilah’s call-in radio show, and movies ranging from Spiderman to Laura. With such a wide range “texts” maybe How Language Saved My Life would be more apt.
— Mike Faloon