Books of Hours
One man’s meat is another man’s stuffing.
Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By PETER TONGUETTE
“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.