The title of David Shields’s latest book could hardly be more straightforward, but by the time we are finished with it, we are not sure how Shields would define “literature,” or what it is that is supposedly saved. The books Shields admires have saved .  .  . something. His ego, perhaps, or his sanity; but his life?

The early chapters, describing Shields’s unremarkable struggles with his parents, his relationships with women, and his stutter, belie such a high-flown setup. It is easy to imagine certain historical figures making Shields’s title convincing—Admiral Stockdale recalling Epictetus to steel himself for seven years as a prisoner of war, to name a well-known example—but Shields seems like the sort of fellow who would rely on War and Peace to get over a breakup. For a book purporting to be about the palliative effects of the written word, Shields is inordinately fond of movie references, so he will appreciate this one: As a character in Stardust Memories says of a self-indulgent film director, “They try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art.”

That is not to say that some of what Shields writes is not diverting. Entering Brown University, he is so naïve yet eager that he supposes Goethe is pronounced “Go-eth.” (In a similar vein, Susan Sontag once told an interviewer that as a teenager she thought Proust was pronounced “Prowst.”) A long, discursive account of Shields wooing a fellow student at Brown, as he surreptitiously reads her journal entries detailing her view of their intense romance, is quite funny:

I loved her impatient handwriting, her purple ink, the melodrama of the whole thing. It was such a surprising and addictive respite, seeing every aspect of my being celebrated by someone else rather than excoriated by myself.

The episode also manages to subtly illustrate one of his main themes: the difficulty of “living anywhere other than in language” (meaning written language), which was apparently one of the aftereffects of his stutter. Naturally, the love affair ends after he confesses his furtive journal-reading to his would-be soulmate.

Yet there is a diminutive quality to Shields’s anecdotes. Setting aside the fact that they only rarely grapple with matters of life and death, they lack the can’t-put-the-book-down urgency of, say, Martin Amis’s account of his dental fiasco in Experience. What’s more, they start to run together after a while: At least twice, we read of Shields burying his troubles in dishes of ice cream, while a tribute to J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye opens with the unpalatable image of our narrator gulping buttermilk to soothe a sore throat. Maybe these repeated references to food and mouth are meant to connect (however imperceptibly, to the casual reader) to Shields’s stutter, but it seems more likely that he is just being sloppy.

The sole exception, and the most powerful segment, deals with Shields’s dalliance with suicide. It is also one passage in which Shields’s minimalistic prose suits the subject matter: He dispatches with the episode in four sentences, the last of which reads, “Shutting my eyes and turning off the light, I try to imagine what broken glass would sound like in the dark.” Hauntingly, he says no more. (The passage is adapted from a lengthier, less effective one in a Shields novel). Elsewhere, though, Shields’s self--conscious attempts at collage backfire, as when quotations about humanity’s purpose are offered by Tolstoy, Ice-T, Burt Reynolds, and Samuel Beckett, in that order.

Shields writes a great deal about other books and other writers, but the quantity is deceptive; he is apt to play hide-and-seek with what insights he has. Early on, he repeats a few phrases twice in a row—“maybe, maybe” and “it does, it does”—but it takes another 80-odd pages before we can infer that he is doing so in homage to a tic he describes from Renata Adler’s Speedboat, one of his favorite books. Later, he runs through “fifty-five works I swear by” in about 17 pages, and counts on certain assertions being left unchallenged. He claims that the “expository first chapter” of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five “renders moot the rest of the book and everything else he ever wrote.” This unconventional view reflects Shields’s proud, well-publicized distaste for fiction—he offers an out-of-nowhere tsk-tsk to Don DeLillo for writing Point Omega as a novel rather than as the “beautiful film criticism” it really wants to be—but he fails to mention that when Vonnegut forsook storytelling entirely in his last book, Timequake, the result was a slipshod mess.

“Straightforward fiction func-tions only as more bubble wrap, nostalgia, retreat,” Shields writes, implicitly slighting the very sort of books that most readers actually rely on for guidance or solace. Of course, many of the works he enthuses about are essential—St. Augustine’s Confessions, Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, the essays of Montaigne—but you have to wonder about him when he reluctantly refers to James Joyce’s “The Dead” as “ ‘great’ ” (in ironic quotation marks), while later extolling Sh*t My Dad Says, which, he concedes, is “not great or even good, probably, really, finally, but above all it’s not boring.” I’m not sure which is more ridiculous: the idea that this book (based on a Twitter account) is “literature,” or that it had any role in saving anyone’s life, ever.

Shields gives the impression of being hard on himself, but is he really? At one point, in an amusingly thorough but dated rant, he claims to share a litany of unappealing qualities with George W. Bush—but by the end, we suspect the point was to make Bush look bad, not himself. To his credit, though, Shields ends this maddening volume on a rare tough-minded note. “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness,” he writes. “Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.”

Peter Tonguette is the author, most recently, of The Films of James Bridges.

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