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Book Review: I Think You're Totally Wrong

03/04/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel tilts on a classic approach -- the contrast. Over the course of four days, authors David Shields and Caleb Powell engaged in a dialogue about a spectrum of topics related to art, family, sports, sex and the many life choices we all make (whether we admit it or not).

The premise is that Shields and Powell occupy opposing realms, Shields in theory standing for thought and knowledge, Powell for action and experience.

Shields is a longstanding writer, author of 16 books, tenured writer-in-residence at the University of Washington. Shields is also, by his account, supremely devoted to his quest to articulate meaning to the exclusion of just about all else. "I live more totally for writing than you do," he tells Powell. "I make more sacrifices."

Powell assumes the role of combatant, a former student of Shields' who once held hopes of being a great writer but instead has found meaning as a teacher, traveler and stay-at-home father. Powell also concedes he is hardly smitten with his one-time teacher's work, at one point calling one of his books, "Good bathroom reading, doctor's office reading."

A typical repartee has Powell asking Shields, "You say literature saved your life? Really? Really? Your life was in jeopardy? You're not politically or socially oppressed."

To which Shields counters: "Wow. That's an incredibly banal and Maoist view of what constitutes suffering. If only the widow of Kabul's suffering counts, why read Hamlet? I love the Yeats line that goes, 'Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering the abyss of himself.'"

But don't think contrast and contention tells all. For all the times these two disagree, in large part they are in partnership. As drawn as Shields is to singular reflection and the life of an aesthete, he has also created a comfortable life for himself as a writer, husband and father. Naturally, in the course of this work he questions his desire and aptitude for each of these roles.

Powell, hardly a philistine, has been a teacher, published several pieces and, throughout I Think You're Totally Wrong, makes a reasonably good case that experience wed to literacy can make a pretty good combo. Or as Shields might have told Marcel Proust, no man is a cork-lined room.

Powell and Shields in their own ways are each quite literate, immersed, engaged readers with nuanced -- but hardly inaccessible -- opinions about such authors as Noam Chomsky, J.M. Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace. If Shields is an English professor devoid of academic jargon, then Powell is the self-made guy you meet at a Super Bowl party who turns out to be more aware of prominent authors than you first imagined.

This book is part of Shields' desire to reimagine literature. Once upon a time he appeared headed for what could be called a senior management position in the business of literature. Holder of an undergraduate degree in English from Brown and a MFA from the Harvard Business School of fiction, the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Shields began his career in an orthodox fashion, authoring several quasi-autobiographical novels and a collection of short stories. These were well-crafted, lean, thoughtful and melancholy tales of family and angst in line with much of the domestic realism that had been prevalent in the '80s.

But beginning in 1995 with his book Remote, Shields created a new style, displaying an overtly personalized connection to his topics by recasting such classic forms as the essay and the collage. As he says in I Think You're Totally Wrong, "Essences are what I'm interested in." Shields' many books in his post-realism period include a look at race and a basketball team Black Planet, his aging father The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead and his idiosyncratic engagement with the written word How Literature Saved My Life. The staccato-like format Shields often employs in these works is a keen fit for a contemporary world chockfull of tweets, posts, emails and text messages.

Though the dialogue Shields and Powell engage in is a format that goes all the way back to Plato, the most recent notable example -- one Shields and Powell both refer to in a talisman-like way -- is My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 movie about a dialogue between the pensive Wallace Shawn and strident Andre Gregory.

But let it be noted: When the two set out on this trip to watch that film, Powell falls asleep. Such is this book's subversive nature. Perhaps Powell's snooze is a wink to readers that as popular as My Dinner with Andre has been among a certain kind of literate perpetual undergraduate liberal arts major -- the precise audience for this book -- the film also has a ponderous, self-important quality that Shields and Powell hope to avoid. Largely they do.

In some ways I Think You're Totally Wrong reads like a book-reader's "Seinfeld" coffee shop talk, a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" walk through Los Angeles or an English department version of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption." It takes a nimble mind to issue thoughts on the likes of Yeats and Joyce in 30 seconds, but one suspects Shields and Powell would enjoy the challenge.

Joel Drucker is author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.