After reading David Shields' "How Literature Saved My Life," I feel as if I've been on a drunk with a self-absorbed, irritating, neurotic, whining mess. Throughout the book I kept wanting to leave and stagger home to my collected T.S. Eliot criticism, yet stayed for another round.
Shields, at age 57, is consumed by adolescent angst, a childish fear of death. To keep this at bay, he chatters about books, writing, literature, art. Many of his comments strive for hip, ironic originality but sink to banality. His riffs faintly resemble a monologue from a Woody Allen movie, only not as funny.
Shields gives a post mortem on the death of the novel, claiming traditional narrative is too slow moving and contrived for our fragmented, distracted, short-attention-span age. He speaks for the immediacy of collage and blogs.
The book itself seeks to meet this aesthetic principle; Shields organizes his work by chunks, some only one or two paragraphs long. As the book builds to its finish, his interludes grow longer and more insightful. While saying he's abandoned the long-unfolding novel, he's actually expressing his anguish over the decline of the novel's culture. He pulls off the neat paradoxical trick, a book, increasingly mediated, about the end of the book.
When thinking about this blog -- ha, ha, Mr. Dave -- I was going to say the book's appeal was just barely above that of the Kardashians, not that I've ever watched. For one thing, we can assume that Shields has read many more books than Kim and family. On the whole, "How Literature Saved My Life" gave more morbid fun than aggravation. Too bad he thinks James Agee wrote "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" while working for Forbes instead of Henry Luce's Fortune. That howler shows one of the misfortunes of publishing's decline: fewer fact checkers.