I titled this essay (and the column in which it sits) after the 24th chapter of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, in which he shares notes written to friends about their books. These notes, written as eloquently as a conventional book review, are solipsistic (to use a nice word) and narcissistic (to use an accurate word). Shields himself admits at the end of the chapter that he can’t help but read his own life, his own tastes, and his own desires into others’ words:
Life’s difficult, maybe even a drag; language is (slim) solace. No one else gets what you’re doing; I alone get it. You and me, babe. Intimacy. Urgency. We alone get life. Let me explain your book – the text – to yourself. Let me tell you what your book is about. Life is shit. We are shit. This, alone, will save us – this communication.
“Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About” is the only chapter in Reality Hunger, as far as I can tell, that doesn’t appropriate from other sources. In these notes, Shields exposes his intrinsic and honest love for reading and writing. Reality Hunger, both in form (26 collage chapters containing 618 aphorisms) and content (much of the text draws from external sources, deliberately without credit), is a meditation on how the modern reader can try to make sense of our current age of information overload. Shields doesn’t give an explicit prescription, unless you consider the 24th chapter his guide on how to read in this century.
I did, and I do.
All the essays in this column (including the one you’re reading now) began, in my mind, as “book reviews.” Eventually, I came to think of them as “book-inspired essays.” In moments of honesty, though, I’ve called them “personal essays disguised as book reviews.” I view myself as a husband and father, a physician, and a writer, in that order; therefore, not surprisingly, these essays almost exclusively focus on my marriage, my children, my doctoring, and my struggles with the written word. I mean these essays as the highest compliment to the writers whose books inspired each piece. Again, borrowing from David Shields in defense of his own self-obsessed book reviews: “There’s always an implied love story between me and the writer – me loving the book, loving the writer.”
In writing about a book that has moved me, I don’t want to recap a plot point or summarize an author’s theme. I want to share the thoughts that ran through my head as I turned the pages and, later that night, lay in bed eagerly anticipating turning more pages the next day. Of course, I dreamed that these thoughts of mine would somehow make their way to the authors whose words had touched me, and they’d somehow find a way to confirm me and my interpretation of their books.
Let me tell you what your book is about – at least what I think it’s about. And please tell me that I’m right.
Other People: Takes & Mistakes arrives in February and serves as a victory lap for David Shields, collecting three-plus decades of his essays into a single collection. The book is divided into five sections – essays on men, women, athletes, performers, and alter egos – and the groupings seem more like a publisher’s decision than the author’s original intent. Shields, after all, has repeatedly argued that creative boundaries should not exist: labels are unnecessary, borders should be blurred, the best fiction has true elements, and the best non-fiction has fictitious elements. By which I mean: every essay in this book – whether it’s about a man (his father) or a woman (his wife) or an athlete (Charles Barkley) or a performer (Bob Balaban) – is, at its core, an essay about David Shields.
By which I mean: Shields’s non-fiction has forecasted our culture’s growing narcissism. Twenty years ago, he set out to write a book about the Seattle Supersonics’ 1994-95 season and the dynamics of race in the National Basketball Association, but the result, Black Planet, was a book-length analysis of his own discomfort about racial stereotypes and his personal journey to embody the spirit (warts and all) of his new chosen hometown, Seattle. This is no different from all the new parents who’ve been posting baby pictures or videos on Facebook since its inception, ostensibly to share their children with the world, but also as an excuse to document their own lives (Shields has referred to Facebook as a stream of bite-sized personal essays). And this is no different from the wave of “confessional criticism” that Jason Guriel bemoaned last year in The Walrus with his essay, “I Don’t Care About Your Life.” Guriel hammered contemporary book, music, and film reviewers for writing “with a selfie stick” and taking the “easy” route of relating works of art to their lives: “Contemporary criticism is positively crowded with first-person pronouns, micro-doses of memoir, brief hits of biography. Critics don’t simply wrestle with their assigned cultural object; they wrestle with themselves, as well.” I disagree with Guriel and side with Shields, obviously. Writing about myself, in the context of a book I’ve just read, isn’t particularly “easy” for me, unless I define “easy” as the only possible way I can conceivably think of processing what I’ve experienced as a reader.
“Rebecca’s Journal,” Shields’s account of sneaking into his college girlfriend’s dorm room and reading her diary, first appeared in Enough About You: Notes Toward the New Autobiography. He later excerpts from the essay in Reality Hunger and then reprints the entire essay (with some minor word changes) in How Literature Saved My Life. Of course the essay is included in Other People, too. The essay plays to our fantasies of knowing what others truly think about us. The essay also fits the David Shields perspective: everything is about me, and everything is potentially literature. Or so it appears. Rebecca probably journaled about subjects besides her boyfriend, but Shields (and his readers, following right alongside him) only seems to find himself as the subject of her passionate entries.
In the flash piece, “A Fable,” Shields relays the story of his wife’s friend, who worked in a souvenir shop in Alaska. Passengers from the cruise ships would come into the shop and ask this friend to mail postcards for them. Apparently, he was an expert at replicating people’s handwriting and would add dirty postscripts to the cards, such as “Got laid in Ketchikan” and “Gave head in Sitka.” Shields appends this short tale with a commentary:
What do I love so much about this story? I could say, as I’m supposed to say, “I don’t know – it just makes me laugh,” but really I do know. It’s an ode on my favorite idea: language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.
He’s turned a silly story, one that may not even be true, into a treatise on how disconnected humans are, or, at least, how disconnected he feels from other humans.
He’s also casting light on his particular gift. “Language is all we have to connect us,” he pleads, and the essays that comprise Other People are prime examples of how a singular writer can connect to a multitude of people via the written word. Even a supposedly shy writer like Shields. Towards the end of an essay on Bill Murray, “The Only Solution to the Soul is the Senses,” Shields contrasts himself with the comedic actor: “Murray, for all his anomies, likes being in the world. Bully for him. I love standing in the shadows, gazing intently at ethereal glare.” In the lyric essay, “Despair,” Shields attempts to explain why he preferred watching other kids play Little League baseball to participating himself:
I don’t know what’s wrong with me – why I’m adept only at a distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor – but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.
If you’re a David Shields fanatic (as I am), then you’ve read or listened to all of his interviews over the years, and you’ve probably heard him use the same David Foster Wallace quote again and again: “I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.” Every essay in Other People is an attempt to construct that kind of bridge, but it’s a particular kind of crossing that Shields constructs. He identifies how he and his subject diverge, then he grasps onto how he and his subject align, and then he usually concludes that the similarities are more important than the differences. Let me tell you what you’re about, in other words.
It’s hard to read these days (or, for that matter, do almost anything) without framing the material within the context of our current political climate. Our new president has been called many things, but the word “narcissist” comes up frequently. That moniker has been applied to David Shields, too, by many of his critics (and Amazon reviewers) and even by some of his fans (go back to my first paragraph). The most 2016 book I read in 2016 was Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others, which is less about narcissism and more about the fear of narcissism. Dombek argues that we’ve grown too loose with the narcissism diagnosis, applying it to entire generations (e.g. millennials) and run-of-the-mill assholes (e.g. bad boyfriends), because it’s easier to call out others’ self-absorption than to question if we’re just uninteresting. Fearing narcissism in others, she worries, is also an unhealthy way of projecting our own tendencies to think only of ourselves. By which I mean: David Shields, like most of us, is not really a narcissist. Other People is entirely about David Shields, but it’s entirely about his attempt to connect with the world outside himself. For that reason, it’s an incredibly important book for 2017 and all the anxiety that this year brings. By which I mean: Let’s tell each other what we’re about.
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York.