Why David Shields Can’t Read the ‘Greatest Book Ever Written’ Anymore – The New York Times

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The essayist and novelist David Shields, whose forthcoming book is “The Very Last Interview,” used to idolize Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” But these days it “feels to me sort of twee. … I need more comedy, more urgency, more white space.”

What books are on your night stand?

Renata Adler, “A Year in the Dark.” James Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work.” Roland Barthes, “Mourning Diary.” Alison Bechdel, “Are You My Mother?” Samuel Beckett, “Proust.” Jenny Boully, “[one love affair].” Simon Critchley, “Very Little … Almost Nothing.” Joshua Cohen, “The Netanyahus.” Susan Daitch, “Siege of Comedians.” Lydia Davis, “The Cows.” Alain De Botton, “Essays in Love.” Annie Dillard, “For the Time Being.” Geoff Dyer, “The Last Days of Roger Federer” (forthcoming). Kenneth Goldsmith, “Seven American Deaths and Disasters.” Robin Hemley, “Oblivion” (forthcoming). Cathy Park Hong, “Minor Feelings.” Phillip Lopate (editor), “The Contemporary American Essay.” Barry Lopez, “About This Life.” Heather McHugh, “Broken English.” Janet Malcolm, “Two Lives.” Daphne Merkin, “This Close to Happy.” Adam Phillips, “Winnicott.” Vladimir Nabokov, “Nikolai Gogol.” Lance Olsen, “Circus of the Mind in Motion.” Whitney Otto, “Art for the Ladylike.” Andre Perry, “Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now.” Wendy Walters, “Multiply/Divide.” John Williams, “Augustus.”

What’s the last great book you read?

Annie Ernaux, “Things Seen,” which pretends to be a casual diary about nothing in particular but is in fact a sustained meditation on the relationship between private disequilibrium and public violence.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Not a novel per se but certainly a classic. For half my life, the Samuel Johnson scholar Helen Deutsch has been urging me to read James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” and I’ve finally read it: one of the greatest books ever written (also one of the funniest, saddest and strangest). I also recently read another, equally great, long, sad and strange book, Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” which is what Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” should have been called.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

No. None. This brings to mind the perhaps overly familiar joke that Wagner’s music is actually better than it sounds. I read almost exclusively for the lure of another person’s voice, for the way that voice builds a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness, for the exhilaration of inhabiting someone else’s consciousness, and one wants to feel one is residing in an eloquent place, no? (Mixed metaphor alert.)

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Propped up in bed, with a physical copy of the book (preferably in paperback — easier to hold and fold), pen in hand (uggh my sheets are a mishmash of misdirected pen marks).

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Simon Gray’s four-volume “The Complete Smoking Diaries,” which consists of “The Smoking Diaries,” “The Year of the Jouncer,” “The Last Cigarette” and “Coda” (the last being one of the most virtuosic and heartbreaking books ever written). The tetralogy is much admired in England but virtually unknown in America. It’s one of my favorite books ever written — it’s easily my favorite book written over the last 20 years (Gray died in 2008) — and my goal in life is to see it published “properly,” as Gray would say, in the United States. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve reread all four volumes, nor can I begin to convey here how utterly brilliant and innovative it is. Gray shows a way forward for the book-length (books-length?) essay.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Nicholson Baker. Alan Bennett. Jo Ann Beard. Eula Biss. Grégoire Bouillier. Anne Carson. J. M. Coetzee. Terry Castle. John D’Agata. Amy Fusselman. Mary Gaitskill. Vivian Gornick. Kathryn Harrison. John Haskell. Susan Howe. Samantha Hunt. Heidi Julavits. Jamaica Kincaid. Nic Kelman. David Kirby. Wayne Koestenbaum. Jonathan Lethem. Chris Kraus. Campbell McGrath. Carole Maso. Sarah Manguso. Rosemary Mahoney. Ander Monson. Dinty W. Moore. Maggie Nelson. Don Paterson. Tim Parks. Claudia Rankine. Paisley Rekdal. James Richardson. Richard Rodriguez. Mary Ruefle. Wallace Shawn. Lauren Slater. Melanie Thernstrom. Sallie Tisdale. Joe Wenderoth. D .J. Waldie. Kate Zambreno.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I’m not superstitious in that way. Albert Camus said that writers should be able — after reading the first page — to tell if the book is for them. William Gass had a similar test: Turn to page 100 and read a sample paragraph. I don’t continue reading books that I don’t love. I’m now writing a book about experimental, avant-garde, essayistic, documentary films, and I’m trying not to read too many books on this exact subject, lest all the wind whoosh out of my sails.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Several years ago, my former student Caleb Powell and I co-wrote a book called “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel.” We even play ourselves in the very low-budget film adaptation. (Victor LaValle said to me it’s one of the very few times he’s ever seen authentic awkwardness onscreen. I think this may possibly have been meant as praise; we were so bad we were good?) In any case, Caleb and I had been weirdly antagonistic toward each other for decades along the life-versus-art corridor. We’re now friends, though, of course, a tiny residue of that earlier tension remains.

Your new book is a sort of autobiography constructed out of questions that interviewers have asked you, minus the answers. Can you recommend other experimental or unconventional memoirs?

The questions are only very loosely based on questions I’ve been asked; I then rewrote, reimagined, reinvented them. I’m interested in the critical intelligence in the imaginative position, self-portraits in convex mirrors, autobiographies by any means necessary. Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams.” James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Hilton Als, “The Women.” Julian Barnes, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of.” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “Dictee.” “The Journals of John Cheever.” Alphonse Daudet, “In the Land of Pain.” Marguerite Duras, “The Lover.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up.” Jonathan Safran Foer, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease.” Hervé Guibert, “The Mausoleum of Lovers.” Spalding Gray, “Morning, Noon and Night.” Elizabeth Hardwick, “Sleepless Nights.” Margo Jefferson, “Negroland.” Édouard Levé, “Autoportrait.” Rian Malan, “My Traitor’s Heart.” David Markson, “This Is Not a Novel.” Leonard Michaels, “Journal.” V. S. Naipaul, “A Way in the World.” Friedrich Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo.” Fernando Pessoa, “The Book of Disquiet.” Jonathan Raban, “For Love & Money.” W. G. Sebald, “Rings of Saturn.” Jean Stafford, “A Mother in History.” Jean Toomer, “Cane.” George W. S. Trow, “My Pilgrim’s Progress.”

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

How to microdose (James Fadiman, “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys”).

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

Death. As Cormac McCarthy has said: “Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd.” I think we should talk about it more. I know I’ve certainly done my part.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally or intellectually?

Is this a trick question to make sure I’m not answering rotely? There’s no such distinction, at least in my mind (heart). Any book I love reaches me both ways. That said, I have probably a higher tolerance than most of my writer-friends do for, say, Michel Houellebecq’s “In the Presence of Schopenhauer.”

How do you organize your books?

The books I love are in my bedroom. The books I like are in the living room. The books I don’t care about are in my office.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel” (Carol Hoover, editor).

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

Amy Fusselman’s “The Pharmacist’s Mate,” from my former student Paul Bravmann; almost all of my favorite books have been recommended to me by Paul or Aaron Strumwasser or Alexis Nelson or other students and former students.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

In graduate school, I thought Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” was the greatest book ever written. On many levels, I still believe that, but I can’t read it anymore. Proust’s epic now feels to me sort of twee and also not discontinuous enough. I need more comedy, more urgency, more white space.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” What Biden and most Democratic politicians don’t appear to understand is that “politics ain’t beanbag” (to quote Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional character Mr. Dooley). I owe the following metaphor to my friend, the incisive novelist Andrew Altschul: The Republicans are playing ice hockey and the Democrats are playing badminton. Or, same point, different metaphor: The Republicans are Lucy with the football; the Democrats are Charlie Brown. Is this all just learned helplessness?

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I worry that this sounds like a sketch that Monty Python has already done and that I missed, but as someone who stutters, I’m fascinated by its effect upon one’s character and aesthetic, so I’d invite Demosthenes, Elizabeth Bowen and Edward Hoagland to discuss this crucial topic. Even the worst-case scenario seems to me fine: We’d all fall more or less silent and focus on the food.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I like some of Joan Didion’s early essays, but nearly everything she wrote after moving back to New York in 1988 strikes me as painfully self-parodic: awash in self-regard, brand-building, name- and place- and status-dropping, intellectual haziness, and utterly assumed and unexamined privilege. The culture’s canonization of her I find far more revelatory than the work itself (glamour porn for people who pretend to be inured to glamour?).

Whom would you want to write your life story?

I’d like to see Ross McElwee, whose self-reflexive documentary films changed, utterly, the trajectory of my writing, make a self-reflexive documentary film, a.k.a. cine-essay or essay film, about my unbelievably fascinating life; I would vanish as a subject. Or I would appear only as a vector on the grid of McElwee’s own investigation.

What do you plan to read next?

This may well sound like a punchline, but I’ve been nosing around in Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Essays and Aphorisms.” He’s so gloomy that he makes me giddy. Same with E. M. Cioran’s “The Temptation to Exist,” which I love to (as it were) death.

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