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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Reading About Reading

"All criticism is a form of autobiography."

From that first sentence of "How Literature Saved My Life" (2013), author David Shields had me. His brief volume is a stimulating dissertation on great books as well as a thoughtful and humorous meditation on loneliness. It is also a list maker's dream.

Over the past several years, I've lost count how many books about books I've finished. Most have been worthwhile and surprisingly, not as redundant as you might imagine. And I've tried not to get defensive when any book-to-book overlap reminds me of gaps in my own education (e.g. "Remembrance of Things Past"). Shields' book was refreshing because his picks of "...works I swear by..." from the oeuvre of oft-cited authors (Cheever, Nabokov, Orwell, etc.) was not a list of their "greatest hits".

I also share the author's unabashed admiration for the late David Foster Wallace. Coincidentally, just days before stumbling onto "...Literature..." in a library drive-by, I'd similarly run across Wallace's "This is Water". The latter is a transcript of a commencement address Wallace delivered in 2005 at Kenyon College. Given Wallace's tragic 2008 suicide, it was difficult reading the final sentences of Shields' book.

"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this - that's what makes it essential."

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