Anybody who's kept up with my blog over the past few months (sup, Mom) knows that I've been reading a little bit of David Shields lately. What you don't know -- unless you had the bad luck of catching me at one of those times where I feel like, you know, expounding -- is how totally his books have bowled me over.
Shields writes in "collage," which is to say that his recent books, the ones I've read, while loosely structured around certain ideas, are composed of quazi-related bits and pieces, vignettes that share some peripheral, tangential attributes but remain nonetheless discrete and self-sufficient. What makes for an amazing reading experience is the piecing together an argument from the fragments -- how an anecdote about Iowa basketball and another about briefly wishing Tiger Woods were dead, and a hundred other asides all coalesce into something coherent and, yes, important about how we live and how we live together. The guy is a maestro.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw that Shields would be appearing at The Strand bookstore, just below Union Square in Manhattan, for a Q&A session with another author, Renata Adler. (Her book Speedboat, loved by many, including Shields, was just reprinted by the New York Review of Books.) I marked the event on my calendar, and last Friday I went.
Shields and Adler are both fixated on communication (chiefly, its flaws), and they talked at length about it over the course of the discussion. One moment in particular seemed to (maybe, serendipitously) catch at their meanings.
Talking back and forth, along with a moderator, whose name and occupation escape me (sorry, guy), both were animated, articulate and as smart as you would expect authors who'd written critically celebrated books to be. Both were also mostly at ease, his tall frame bending casually against the frame of his heavy leather chair, her tiny one sunk comfortably into hers.
This isn't to say there weren't hiccups. There were, for one, some problems with acoustics. Really, I should say, with Renata Adler's mic. And, really, I should say, with the fact that Renata Adler was having a certain amount of difficulty speaking directly into her mic. As a result, many of her wonderful musings were lost on the audience during the first portion of the event. Shields joked that she was making a point about the hazards of communication. The Strand's staff eventually, and helpfully, supplied her with a mic stand, and the problem was remedied.
Shields, meanwhile, who has written at length about his lifelong battle against stuttering (the hazards of communication, etc.) but nonetheless spoke with impeccable diction throughout the Q&A portion of the event, tripped over his words on a few occasions when the time came to read a passage from his book. Something about the change in dynamic -- and I won't guess what exactly it might have been, except to say that the feeling of intimacy available in conversation doesn't translate very well into a one-to-many address -- had a visible affect on his relationship with talking.
At another point, he laughed at a joke he had told, which I can't quite remember, while the audience remained deathly silent. (And, man, did I feel for him, having a children's treasury of catastrophically failed jokes to my name.) Anyway, he rebounded immediately, and I'm sure nobody but me even remembers, so whatever.
Point being: Speaking in front of people is tricky, even for the seasoned professional. Promotional events like these, conversational or no, are performative as much as anything else, and that has a way of creating distance between the sender and the receiver.
There was one moment, however, when the artifice of the event melted away. Shields mentioned the book The Smoking Diaries, by Simon Gray, which he identified as his favorite (or was it the "best"?) book of the past 15 years. The name "Proust" was thrown around. Shields is trying to get Vintage to re-print. Etc.
"Oh, yes," Adler chimed in, by way of acclamation. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"You've read it, too!" And there was genuine excitement in his voice, the two unexpectedly caught in a shared moment of literary fandom. When he dove back into his discussion of the many merits of The Smoking Diaries, he seemed more energized than before.
Earlier on, Adler talked about how language and literature were these things we all share, cultural touchstones. She used the example of a line from Richard III, in which the mad tyrant, having just had two children murdered, begs his wife, Lady Anne, to deny his guilt. To which Anne replies: "Then say they were not slain. But dead they are, and devilish slave, by thee." A line first written by Shakespeare, then passed down through generations and then, as Adler recounted, repeated at the Nuremberg trials, and again at a murder trial in Mississippi.
Adler worried that these touchstones are fewer than before.
She referred to "we" (the "we" in the room?) as "the last generation of readers." She also acknowledged that hers was a perspective shared by the older generations past, all the way back to the birth of technology, and that things had worked out okay so far. She lamented, nonetheless.
Shields recounted later a line from David Foster Wallace, which he repeated in "How Literature Saved My Life." It went:
We're existentially alone on the planet. 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 brigde across that abyss of human loneliness.
The Smoking Diaries did that at The Strand. Shields was excited. Adler was excited. I was excited, despite the better-than-even odds I'll never even read the damn book. Throughout the room you could see audience members grabbing for their phones or a piece of paper to jot down its name. Everybody forgot everything else other than that this was something we all wanted to share.
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