Early on in his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” critic, essayist, and reformed novelist David Shields compares himself to George W. Bush, whom he considers his “worst self realized.” Evidence abounds: Both love to watch football and eat pretzels. Both resent the American public’s reverence for The New York Times. Both pretend they’re taller than they actually are.
The most relevant part of Shields’s litany comes near the middle: “[Bush] once said he couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be poor; I have trouble reading books by people whose sensibility is wildly divergent from my own.” This concession should pique the interest of some novel readers, for whom Shields has become something of a bugbear. In 2010, he published “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” an inspired assemblage of quotes and original writing that, taken together, produced an altogether persuasive argument for the supremacy of the book-length literary essay. It jabbed at the traditional novel as an outmoded, often boring form.