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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Book review

"One day" a joyous riff on life and the human body

Different as we are, we'll all love "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead," by Seattle author and University of Washington professor David Shields.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Shields will discuss "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" at 7 p.m. March 5 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333;

"The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" by David Shields.

Knopf, 226 pp., $23.95

There are two kinds of people: those of us who accept that gravity and time will triumph over exercise, healthy eating and accomplishments ... and the rest of you.

Here's the beauty part: Different as we are, we'll all love "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead," by Seattle author and University of Washington professor David Shields. The worst age-phobes may stumble over lines like this: "As soon as animals, including humans, reach sexual maturity, many of their functions weaken." But those folks probably aren't big readers anyway; too busy keeping up with all those e-mail products that make some body parts bigger, others leaner.

Perhaps if the brilliant Oliver Sacks could be as funny as Christopher Buckley and write like, say, David Shields, there would be another book out there like this one. So far, though, it appears to be unique. Shields wrote a love letter to life, while talking quite a bit about how our bodies march us straight toward death:

"We are all thrillingly different animals, and we are all, in a sense, the same animal. The body — in its movement from swaddling to casket — can tell us everything we can possibly know about everything."

A tremendous amount of research concerning how humans develop and age went into the book, and when Shields sat down to write, he made a wise and generous decision: to convey what he learned in a confident but self-deprecating manner, the way a smart friend might share facts over the dinner table. And despite the impressive acreage of facts, Shields is really concerned with the rich individuality that makes humans human.

Writing about the point in life when human minds and bodies hit peak-performance levels (not to spoil anything here, but let's just say it's awfully early in our game), Shields counters the scientific with the hilarious:

"When I was 31, I was informed that someone had written, in a stall in the women's bathroom in a bookstore, 'David Shields is a great writer and a babe to boot.' This is pretty much the high point of my life, when my acne was long gone and I still had hair and was thin without dieting and could still wear contacts and thought I was going to become famous."

The parallel exploration in the book, its key device, if you can respectfully label a parent as such, is Shields' beloved, resented father, 96 years old at the book's writing. The elder Shields is an athletic contrarian who at 86 played through a tennis match while having a heart attack; an original thinker who disdains popular culture; an anti-sentimentalist who weeps each time his son hugs him; and who remains one hot number between the sheets, if he does say so himself. "He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow," Shields writes in the book's introduction.

If you think about it, reading and aging have a lot in common. The wonder of books is that they are such changeable creations; the same words tell different stories from one reader to the next, from that first perusal to rereading years later. Growing older also finds us variously engaged, ungrateful, curious, delighted, furious, lithe, rigid, depending on where and when we encounter it. Book or life, the luckiest are those who can't wait to see how it all turns out, even if we do need reading glasses to catch the details.

Writer Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is aging gracefully in Portland.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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