I really hate those repeat-until-you-gag phrases, such as “thinking outside the box.” In the space of those few opening words, your subconscious has probably released an unwelcome crowd of them. But perhaps the variation “thinking outside the book” is permissible when approaching David Shields’s latest challenge to the world of all things printed: HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE.
A baker’s dozen of previous Shields titles have achieved awards lists, secure cult status, and just about everything in between. That’s a long-ish way of saying that he’s definitely an acquired taste (ugh, one of those phrases again…). But in this case, it’s not a feeble way of saying I didn’t like the Seattle-based author’s book. In fact, I liked a lot of it. Actually, I liked at least one thing on every page.
What Shields does to me, however, is something I tend to resist when I turn to literature. He keeps me off-balance, turning me left when I expect to go right, crashing me into aesthetic walls when I want to see clearly ahead, dropping me down psychic deep wells when I crave serenity. The list is longer than that, but you get the idea.
"HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE doesn’t promise to save your life, or mine. But here and there, David Shields offers enough tantalizing glimpses of potential salvation-through-words to make the experiences of his unique psyche worthwhile."
Let’s get back to basics for a moment. HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE is marketed as “essays,” and contains just over 200 pages of fine quality deckle-edged ivory paper, set in elegant Monotype Dante font. Its leaves are contained between two-tone blue hardcovers with fabric-bound spine and the requisite glossy dust jacket. It is a physically desirable product that’s pleasant to hold and visually beautiful to read.
Is it a book? Physically, yes. But artistically speaking, it works hard at defying any modern bookish genre you try to impose on it. Many of Shields’s eccentrically subtitled musings read like interesting detours on the way to somewhere else, not necessarily complete essays or vignettes. Yet in their own way, each is interesting and often thought-provoking. Sometimes, you even do grasp a personally life-saving element in all this erudite, honest and pleasant chatter. The pages form intersecting mosaics of experience rather than conventional chapters; his is the kind of prose one can open at random and find something that sticks.
The closest analogy that emerged after I’d travelled these 200 or so pages with a man I’d never met before (but wouldn’t mind all that much meeting again) is the centuries-old concept of “table talk” books. These were personal collections of favourite ideas and quotes (both loved and hated) once amassed by scholars --- Martin Luther, Erasmus, Thomas More, and so on --- wanting to keep track of lengthy and relaxed after-dinner conversations with their well-read friends. Educated people regularly engaged in this quality-time activity long before there were too many technological distractions getting in the way of deep human thought. Back then, literature (and its sister-art, music) really did save people’s lives; they were what one did in the cherished spaces lived between hunger, war, disease, poverty, drought and other disasters.
HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE doesn’t promise to save your life, or mine. But here and there, David Shields offers enough tantalizing glimpses of potential salvation-through-words to make the experiences of his unique psyche worthwhile.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 8, 2013