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How Literature Saved My Life

Looking through a hyper-personal lens, David Shields offers opinions and proclamations on what makes particular writers important.

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How Literature Saved My Life
By David Shields
Knopf Doubleday
224 pp.

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In my favorite section of How Literature Saved My Life, David Shields recounts an anecdote he heard about a film director who happened to sit next to George W. Bush on a flight from Seoul. During the flight, a Korean dentist took out his camcorder and panned from Bush to the famous director to the in-flight showing of "King Kong." It’s a humorous, plausibly peculiar moment that, in the ubiquity of the camera, the filming of the film, and the odd juxtaposition of people on the plane, encapsulates postmodernity.

I wish there were more moments like it in this slim volume, which instead dwells on Shields’s tastes, angsts, and proclamations of what makes particular writers important. I once heard the memoirist Patricia Hampl observe that there are two types of memoir, one that bears witness to a historical moment through the lens of personal experience and another that’s about “how I came to be me.” Shields’s book is the latter, and he reads the authors he loves almost exclusively through this lens. 

Conspicuously absent is writing driven by social or political issues, which is a legitimate choice, but Shields never touches on this aspect even when he discusses deeply political writers like Milan Kundera or Kurt Vonnegut.  For Shields it’s all personal – which, of course, it is, but for him it’s exclusively so. 

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