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.
This latest book is a detailed explanation of and sustained argument for what Shields likes to read and why he likes to read it. He delivered a thumbnail sketch in a 2011 letter to The New York Review of Books: “I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.”
Does “How Literature Saved My Life” live up to Shields’s expectations? In a word: yes. In this wonderful, vastly entertaining book, he weaves together literary criticism, quotations, and his own fragmentary recollections to illustrate, in form and content, how art — real art, the kind that engages and reflects the world around it — has made his life meaningful as both creator and beholder. If this sounds pedantic or self-aggrandizing, it isn’t, though it very easily could have been. Shields is an elegant, charming, and very funny writer who undercuts anything that comes close to a pronouncement. Although his subject is himself, his instructions should prove useful — inspiring, even — to all readers and writers.
Much of the book’s charisma has to do with its construction. It’s divided into eight chapters, each of which takes on a theme and presents a number of mini-essays on that theme, cycling between art and Shields’s memories, sometimes within the same sentence. There are really just three issues at stake: life, death, and art. These aren’t exactly small issues, but Shields presents them in such a way that they become not only manageable but compelling. It’s thrilling to watch his nuanced argument spool out from paragraph-long autobiographical vignettes and fragmentary thoughts about literature — so thrilling the book reads like, well, a novel.
The result is just as cozy as Nicholson Baker’s “A Box of Matches,” a book Shields admires for “thinking, thrillingly, about the ephemeral nature of existence.” The purpose of nonlinear books like Baker’s and his own, Shields writes, is the transfer of consciousness; it makes the reader feel less lonely. This book proves it — most works of literary criticism aren’t nearly this cuddly.
Part of what makes “How Literature Saved My Life” so approachable is Shields’s commingling of unsparing personal detail with concise, apt thoughts about art. In four pages, he recalls hilarious antics of an old girlfriend “whose entire philosophy, or at least bedroom behavior, was derived from the sex advice columns of racier women’s magazines,” analyzes the way the Lorrie Moore’s novel “Anagrams” presents love, and confesses a crush on Moore herself. This is a standard progression.
It also helps that Shields doesn’t take himself deadly seriously. Discussing “Handbook for Drowning,” a novel he wrote early in his career: “I took my largely happy middle-class life and pulled out all the consolations. I had no wisdom, so I faked it by sounding dire (still the case? Maybe . . .) The people from whom he draws inspiration don’t necessarily take themselves too seriously, either: One of the book’s best quotes is an antic, circular ramble from Burt Reynolds that begins and ends with “Who’s Burt Reynolds?’’
Even the way Shields addresses the writers he admires is intimate. The book is most often in conversation with heavyweights like Jonathan Lethem, Renata Adler, and David Foster Wallace. (Especially Wallace, for obvious reasons; there is even a mini-chapter called “How literature didn’t save David Foster Wallace’s life.”) He praises them, quibbles with them, and takes them to task when they let him down. (“In the overwhelming majority of novels . . . including Wallace’s own, I find the game is simply not worth the candle.”) In many cases, he lets the work speak for itself: mentioning a book or essay, praising it wildly, and letting it rest — a surefire way to compel readers to return to it.
“The only requirement of a fan or a patient is the surrender to authority,” Shields explains, asking nothing of his readers he does not demand of himself.