Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thread of searching, sadness in short, sharp shocks

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Apparently you can judge a non-fiction book by its cover, although in this case not by its title.

The cover shows the toy figure of a man engrossed in what he's reading, seemingly unaware that he's risking death because he is sitting on the windy edge of a very tall building.

The title has a small l in literature, which is a clue that this will not be a trumpeted, loving testimony to the traditional novel.

Indeed, in contradiction of its title, the author and his earlier books are a better pointer. Shields' 13 previous books include, The Thing About Life Is One Day You'll Be Dead, and Enough About You: Notes Toward The New Autobiography.

There is a continuing thread of searching and sadness that stretches through the pages, along with the authors' constant reference to himself, or as he says, "What I'm a big believer in is talking about everything until you're blue in the face," while one of his repeated section headings is "Our Ground Time Here Will be Brief."

A seeming grab bag, then, of thoughts on movies, books, other authors, his sex life, his writing life and indeed how his life is his writing life. All is grist. Family, friends, failure -- or as Shields sees it, "As my college writing teacher, the novelist John Hawkes, liked to say: 'There's only one subject; failure.'"

This approach is mated to a level of introspection that suggests if it was an Olympic sport he would lead the American team.

Shields has no time for the slow, removed from our current daily life, novel styles of the past. He wants Twitter-length bites of reality. To be fair he does eventually (on page 140) get to "Fifty-five works I swear by" and some of them include works such as Annie Dillard's For the Time Being, V.S. Naipaul's A Way in the World and St. Augustine's Confessions.

For the most part though, Shields applauds experiment and recognition of confusion in the face of inscrutable providence.

Along with that he seems happy to throw overboard standard ideas about borrowing content if not outright plagiarism. This means the reader is not always certain which of his thoughts are begged, borrowed or his.

Not surprisingly he raises the question of whether the hard cover, print format, of his book makes any sense; "Print is, of course, on the verge of becoming an artifact." Not something most of us want to read in the books section of our newspaper.

If short, sharp shocks are the new way of communicating and electronic gizmos are the accepted means of doing so, then forests everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. "Concision is crucial to contemporary art -- boiling down to the bare elements, reducing to just the basic notes (in both senses of the word). The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything."

As to style? Shields loves collage -- "Collage in which tiny paragraph units work together to project a linear motion."

What Shields asks of his reading is "I'm trying to stay awake and not bored and not rote... I'm trying to save my life."

He's like the companion, then, who's nerve endings are on the outside of his skin. His company is tiring if not tiresome.

Perhaps this book is best approached as a beachcomber. Curious things jut out of the sand on first reading. Things worth picking up and pondering. A second go round might be better with a metal detector and a spade for deeper digging.

And for those who don't want to bother with the full book or trip to this author's beach, he does sum up on the last page with, "I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this -- which is what makes it essential."

Ron Robinson is a Winnipeg broadcaster who is unwilling to give up reading Charles Dickens.

How literature saved my life

By David Shields

Knopf, 207 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J7

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