I’m not sure at all what I would think of David Shields’s book Reality Hunger, were I to read it. I’m sort of tempted, and sort of feel as though I’ve heard enough about it already. The fact that it’s subtitled “A Manifesto” is a strike against it, as the thought of reading a manifesto makes me yawn. I had only the vaguest idea what the book was about until I read this article by James Wood in The New Yorker, an article that is ostensibly a review of the latest Change-Rae Lee novel, but is really more of a meditation on the novel itself. Wood introduces Shield’s book as an argument “against the traditional novelistic machinery” and includes this quotation from the book:
I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always “about what they’re about”—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject.
I feel two ways about this passage. In some ways I agree, because many of the books I love the most are ones that don’t have traditional plots or traditional novelistic devices. These books I love are forms of thinking and consciousness and deal with ideas directly. I’m also someone who can’t remember charaters’ names or plot details. On the other hand, I love stories too and am far from ready to dismiss “traditional” novels. In fact, writing a manifesto dismissing “traditional” novels strikes me as a highly silly and annoying thing to do. Expressing one’s personal preference strongly is fine, but I have a feeling Shields is doing more than that.
Ultimately Wood’s discussion of the book is mixed; he calls it “imprecise and overwrought” but also finds Shields’s skepticism towards traditional narrative useful. (Amusingly, in this interview, Shields says that he hopes Wood will review his book “because he’ll hate it. And it’ll be hilarious.” He got his wish, and I wonder if the review is as hilarious as he expected. It seems that Wood might have pleasantly surprised him.)
So, who knows if I’ll read the book or not. As I read the Wood piece I thought the one really excellent reason for reading it would be to see what books Shields praises, since it sounds like we share similar tastes in some areas at least. And then I came across this list of 26 “shifting nonfictions” Shields recommends. And oh, did this list make me happy. It’s exactly what I wanted. By “shifting nonfictions” Shields means books that explore “our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.” The only thing that would have made the list better would be if he had dropped the nonfiction label entirely and made a list of books, fiction or non, that are explicitly idea-driven and have things to say about truth and reality.
But as it is, it’s a really awesome list, and I know that because it has a handful of some of my favorite books ever, enough to prove that we have similar tastes, and then it has some books I’ve been meaning to read forever, which confirms my desire to read them, and then it has some books I’ve never heard of. Perfect! The ones that are among my favorite books ever are Nicholson Baker’s “U&I,” Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,” Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” and David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I also loved an essay by Joe Wenderoth I read recently, and his book Letters to Wendy’s is on the list. Other books I’ve been meaning to read forever include Blaise Pascal’s Pensees and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is there as well, and although I’m not a huge Sebald fan, I do admire him. And I’m intrigued by a bunch of other names included there. So much to explore!