David Shields's "Other People: Takes and Mistakes."
14 June 2017
You know, a lot of times I'll read a book, and then it just sits around my house for a while until I can figure out what to say about it.
Lately I find that I've left some books go so long that I actually forget what it was I wanted to say about them, or even (gasp) really how I felt about them. In addition to various eye issues and other aging body wonkiness, this a sure sign that I am getting old (or that I am getting old and have two young children, meaning I haven't been able to finish a thought in..."MOM! Can I get a drink?!?!?"...wait, what was I saying?). Oh yeah. Getting old, and distracted. I used to remember everything about the nonfiction I read, and how I felt about it (my recall was never as total for fiction, because I just read fiction too fast). Now I'm lucky if I can remember broad outlines and any strong emotions a book inspires in me.
And so it is with David Shields's essay collection Other People: Takes & Mistakes. I read this book more than two months ago now, and it is time to take it back to the library. Now, because I do not have the wherewithal tonight to formulate in my own words what this book is about, I'm going to crib from the jacket copy:
"an intellectually thrilling and emotionally wrenching investigation of otherness: the need for one person to understand another person completely, the impossibility of any such knowing, and the erotics of this separation...
David Shields gives us a book that is something of a revelation: seventy-plus essays, written over the last thirty-five years, substantially reconceived, recombined, and rewritten to form neither a miscellany nor a memoir but a sustained meditation on otherness."
So there's that. What follows next is a transcript of my thoughts, as near as I can remember them, when I first read this book.
Why am I reading another David Shields? I don't like him.
Do I not like his writing, or do I not like him?
Do I always check out his books just because I'm dying to figure out, once and for all, what it is about him that bugs the shit out of me?
But I never figure it out. Why do I keep trying? Nothing he writes is so interesting that I need to go out of my way to find him if I'm not enjoying it.
So, Shields, you open your book with a section on "Men," which contains five loving essays to and about your dad, a hero-worship piece about your big brother and another one about one of your male creative writing teachers. Your section on "Women" contains pieces on: a female octopus and the genetic imperative for the herd to protect its most fertile females; an interview between Diane Sawyer and a woman in a halfway house who abused her children but wants to get them back; his childhood friend telling him he could hear [Shields's] parents having sex during a sleepover (they weren't); how his journalist mother edited one of his articles (and did not make him happy doing so); a woman whose personal journal he read while he was dating her; and three pieces about "desire" (among, to be fair, several others; he does not stint on quantity in the "Women" section of the book).
I don't like something about the way this guy writes about men and women and family members and friends and former lovers but I still can't put my finger on it.
The section on "Athletes" contains an eight-page essay that is nothing but sports phrases like "We just couldn't execute. We weren't able to sustain anything." etc. And this is an "emotionally wrenching" investigation of anything? (See jacket copy, above.)
Who buys David Shields? Why does he get a collection of his old essays put out in hardcover for nearly thirty bucks?
I don't get it. And I'm clearly never going to. And that is all, until David Shields comes out with another book and I will have to go through this process all over again. Do you have any authors like this? Authors you read, for lack of a better phrase, out of spite?