02/06/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Book Review: David Shields -- How Literature Saved My Life

The hope had been a third-person piece. After one book in first person about an athletic icon and another in-progress about the death of a loved one, I was tired of bleeding on paper. Better to ponder David Shields' How Literature Saved My Life with critical distance.

But as Shields reveals, the third person is incidental, certainly quaint, likely dated -- and most of all, strongly irrelevant. For nearly two decades, he has had little use for the omniscient narrator of the realistic fiction and narrative that he'd previously consumed by the truckload.

Third person? To Shields, the party of the third is most of all intrusive and borderline fraudulent, an interloper between the intimacy built by the only two parties that matter in any tale: writer and reader. Ditch the all-knowing impersonal for the seeking personal. Ditch the linear for the collage. Ditch characters for voice. Why draw out an anecdote when an apercu will do?

Within this book lies significant passion and revelation. Staccato-like cut after cut draws on Shields' life, from the life and death of his parents to his continued quest to find meaning through words, be it as stutterer, writer, teacher, husband, parent, gazer. As he writes, "I want the writer to be trying hard to figure something out."

In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields is trying to figure out a great many things, wrestling most of all with the persistent gap he feels between himself as participant and observer. "I don't know what's the matter with me," Shields writes as he reflects on a childhood at a playground, "why I'm so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor."

Shields had been an exemplary ascending writer. Brown English undergraduate, grad student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, author of two novels and a short story collection that largely adhered to such contemporary realistic conventions as recast tales of self and family -- the kind of works that might well have made Shields a successor to his elder fellow Jewish authors, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. But just as Bellow and Roth threw off the gloves to find a more fluid language in The Adventures of Augie March and Portnoy's Complaint, so has Shields found it necessary to liberate himself.

Citing dozens of authors, performers and artists, in this book Shields stirs up a world of literature in flux, toppling the whole topic of storytelling -- correction: the search for meaning with prose -- and his specific challenges finding a workable style: "Just as I was arguing for work that occupied a bleeding edge between genres, so, too, I wanted the reader to experience in my mash-up the dubiety of the first person pronoun."

This is not the first time Shields has attempted this approach. As far back in 1996, in Remote, he explored matters related to celebrity and contemporary culture. Two years ago in Reality Hunger, Shields skillfully blended hundreds of quotes into a montage-like reflection. Even The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, a deeply personal book about his father, Shields crosscut constantly, avoiding the obvious linear march to the morgue that often plagues family memoirs.

But How Literature Saved My Life zooms in even more on matters of the text. In his 20s, traveling through Europe, Shields is more engaged by Proust than the sights. During his first major romance, Shields finds himself sneaking glances into his girlfriend's diary entries.

At first glance, Proust and an undergraduate's diary would hardly seem similar. But to Shields, they are all part of the procession of literature, less so of what he sees as artificially constructed narrative and more part of a self-reflective approach Shields finds not only more implicating and engaging but also more honest in its quest for authenticity: "It wasn't the novel. And it wasn't memoir. It was something else. It was the idea that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms."

And so Shields has, creating an innovative work that engages and is even possible to read backwards and forwards, as I've found through multiple readings -- that is, one start-to-finish reading and multiple dips. Some authors would find that insulting, but my hunch is that Shields would savor such confession.

The bigger point of this book is that Shields has turned the alleged dichotomy of reflection and participation inside-out, upside-down, back and forth. Ponder his book and consider a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson I used to open my own book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life (alas, we self-dramatizing Jews and our quest to be saved): "Besides, why should we be cowed by the name of action? 'Tis a trick of the senses -- no more. We that the ancestor of every action is a thought... To think is to act."