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Originally published February 10, 2013 at 5:05 AM | Page modified February 10, 2013 at 9:13 AM

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‘How Literature Saved My Life’: big questions on truth, fiction and the information stream

Seattle author David Shields’ new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” continues to wrestle with the big questions of truth telling, literature and the flood of information that make up contemporary existence.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Shields

The author of “How Literature Saved My Life” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or

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“How Literature Saved My Life”

by David Shields

Knopf, 224 pp., $25.95

I have been having an argument in my head with David Shields ever since I opened his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life.” Picking up where his last book, “Reality Hunger,” left off, Shields, Seattle author and University of Washington English professor, continues his massive private works project of shredding and reassembling the accumulated inputs of art and life. Conventional narrative has long since “gone dark” for Shields. The only writing that feels true and real to him anymore is “collage” — verbal mashups, “confessional criticism,” tantalizing slices of purportedly real life, seemingly random digressions that he believes capture the flux and bombardment of daily existence.

Forget Tolstoy: “According to Tolstoy, the purpose of art is to transfer feeling from one person’s heart to another person’s heart. In collage, it’s the transfer of consciousness, which strikes me as immeasurably more interesting and loneliness-assuaging.”

Shields’ way of making this transfer is to seize whatever glint in the stream catches his eye and riff on it. You must be joking, I kept thinking in the first 50 pages as he muses on the eerie parallels between his own character and that of George Bush (“in a crisis, he freezes up ... note how I responded to the 2001 Nisqually earthquake”; analogizes Brown University (where he went to college) to Seattle (where he lives) (both are “helplessly, helpfully trapped in limbo”); reveals the size of his “equipment” (“only standard”) and some of the uses he’s put it to; and liberally drops names and gossip about literary pals (among them former Seattle Weekly editor Fred Moody and Seattle-based writer Jonathan Raban).

But then, as I pressed on, I began to wonder if I was reading in the right frame of mind. Shards kept coming back to nick me at random moments (Shieldsian moments?). I had to admire Shields for wrestling with the big questions about truth-telling in genre and the numbing down of so much of adult experience. His analysis of how J.D. Salinger’s narrative voice “talks back to itself, how it listens to itself talking, comments upon what it hears, and keeps talking” is spot on (though, strangely, for a self-confessed “poster boy” for the end of copyright, Shields omits any mention of the baleful effect Salinger’s legal battles had on constricting fair use).

I agree with him that literature is being marginalized “by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms,” but the novel is far from going dark for me. How could it be when so much bright new light is being shed just now by Jonathan Franzen, Edward St. Aubyn, Hilary Mantel?

Though Shields and I are rarely on the same page, I will concede that the man is onto something. The title’s assertion that literature might save a life, though Shields layers it in so much irony that I’m probably crazy to take it even remotely literally, has its appeal. But, finally, I wearied of being trapped inside this mind. “Reality Hunger” was subtitled “a manifesto,” and this follow-up is in the same hectoring monotonous vein. I got it! I wanted to shout back. Let it go! Call me soft on theory, but what I look for in a work of literature is not ideological purity — Is it fragmented enough? Is the “I” sufficiently/insufficiently snarled up into the author’s “real” self? Are the sections divided and numbered so the story makes an ironic gesture toward science? — but pleasure. Whether that pleasure comes from Jane Austen’s deft way with free indirect discourse or W.G. Sebald’s elegiac skimming over memoir and history or Isaac Babel’s devastating nonchalance about a society in violent turmoil makes no difference to me. I know it when I see it.

And I just don’t see it in “How Literature Saved My Life.” Though, to keep the inner argument going, maybe I will one day.

David Laskin is the Seattle-based author of “The Long Way Home” (Harper) and a forthcoming family history called “The Family: Three Fates in the 20th Century” (Viking).

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