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How Literature Saved My Life

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The book is divided into sections with headings suggesting David-Foster-Wallace-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh (e.g., “In which I evoke my character and personality, especially the way I always argue against myself, am ridiculously ambivalent – who knew?”).  Comprised of fragmentary reflections, his structure resembles Annie Dillard’s "For the Time Being," which Shields admires, yet whereas Dillard’s mosaic of observations and introspection comprises a moving search for meaning, Shields’s often appears merely self-aggrandizing, as when he revisits memories of the girlfriend who recorded her passion for him in a journal he read on the sly or quotes a reviewer who has “overpraised” his work. 

Shields is a highly regarded and important author, so I kept wondering, why don’t I like this book? I, too, love many of the authors he reveres. I, too, prefer D.F. Wallace’s essays to his fiction. I’m even an admirer of a (comparatively) lesser-known writer like Maggie Nelson, whose "Bluets" I was pleased to discover in his list “Fifty-five works I swear by.” My favorite superhero is even Spider-Man and I looked forward to reading Shields’s analysis of him.      

Yet for the most part, the book left me cold or (I’ll admit it) even slightly irritated. Yes, the prose was well-written, but it served to posit ideas about art and life I’d already heard ad infinitum or recount events of Shields’s life that just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe his book will sit better with fans of his earlier work who are interested in Shields’ personal life, or readers who hope to learn about postmodernism through reading a text that both discusses and self-consciously exemplifies it. 

Apropos of Shields’ postmodern bent:

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