The Reader as Narcissist

A reader’s favourite subject is himself. As David Shields’ Literature Saved My Life makes clear, we visit the worlds of literature to find ourselves.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared...

Recent Articles


I read the word “glade” the other day and emailed my dad. It seems unlikely that William Butler Yeats wrote the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” with the intention of producing this particular effect. But Yeats’ line, “And live alone in the bee-loud glade,” triggered a memory of sitting on the floor when I was maybe ten years old, listening as my dad read to my sister and me from The Adventures of Robin Hood. I remember “glade” specifically because he mispronounced it, and my 12-year-old sister wouldn’t let him live it down.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of our relationship with literature, in that we ask it both to deliver us from ourselves and to ourselves. I was reading Yeats in part to get out of my own head, but sometimes reading is like travelling—wherever you go, there you are. We want to be rescued from our limited lives and narrow points of view by being introduced to people and places we don’t know and ideas we’ve never thought of. But we also want literature to speak directly to us about our own experiences, so we create opportunities for the text to circle back to our favourite subject—ourselves.

David Shields’ new book, How Literature Saved My Life, is a contortionist portrait of the reading brain. Like the scene in Being John Malkovich in which Malkovich opens the secret porthole to his own brain and looks out onto a solipsistic Malkovichian world—the waiter and all the restaurant patrons wear his own face, the menu is inscribed with a list of dishes all called Malkovich, the murmur of the diners is Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich—Shields is looking at himself seeing himself in books.

When Shields sets out into the world of a book to meet its characters, some shared quality always seems to send him hurtling back towards himself. When Benna Carpenter, protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, offers a mournful comment on loneliness, Shields asks, “Why is she (why am I) so sad?” Moore has endowed Benna with an affinity for people who misspeak. Shields jumps up to declare that he himself stutters, and that he was once in a room with Lorrie Moore and hoped she would notice him: “She gave a reading at her alma mater, where I was then teaching, and I hoped, a little naively, that she’d find my speech impediment irresistible.”

In a way, literature asks us to do this. The ideal response to an artwork is personal and individual, and engages the reader (or viewer, or listener) in a way that usually has little or nothing to do with the formal or intellectual content of the work. In school, even though I loved books, I hated English class because the way I was being asked to interact with works felt so unnatural. Why would I lay the book out like a dead frog, its themes and characters and metaphors things to be prodded, dissected, and classified? Surely the most important thing about Lord of the Flies wasn’t the symbolism of Ralph’s conch shell, but the sick feeling the story gave you, of shame and fear and ugly recognition. In an odd way, books felt too private to talk about.

A reader’s favourite subject is himself. As David Shields’ Literature Saved My Life makes clear, we visit the worlds of literature to find ourselves.

It’s also impossible to evaluate a book without thinking quite a lot about yourself. It can seem like the job of the critic to pretend more certainty than anyone actually feels, but most of us are aware of a few solid facts: I am only one person; I am saddled with a set of biases I can only dimly recognize, if I squint; I may or may not be the reader this author had in mind. I hated Fifth Business, and a Catholic friend said, “You just really don’t understand repression.” We all have huge swathes of experience cut off to us by virtue of having had other whole swathes of experience. Shields has an extended passage in which he compares himself to George Bush: “He once said he couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be poor; I have trouble reading books by people whose sensibility is wildly divergent from my own.”

How Literature Saved My Life came out at the same time as another book with a remarkably similar title: How Poetry Saved My Life, by Amber Dawn. Dawn is a former sex worker, and her book is subtitled A Hustler’s Memoir. Both Shields and Dawn remark on how literature rescued them from themselves, lifting them out of less than fulfilling lives. Shields’ existential angst is a touch more rarefied, consisting of travails like trying to work on his novel while having to teach movie stars’ kids at a private high school, whereas Dawn describes how hopelessly distant the literary world seemed from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: “I remember reading poet Kate Braid’s Inward to the Bones with my then-girlfriend in an SRO (single room occupancy) on Carrall and Hastings Streets in Vancouver’s skid row. She and I—street hustlers, both of us—would daydream about somehow winning our way into Kate Braid’s poetry class, as if it were a lottery.”

It would seem as if these two projects—Shields’ self-referential reading diary, and Dawn’s memoir of a life that threatened to swallow her sense of self—are poles apart. But in her introduction, Dawn offers an invitation. The memoir is in three sections, and she writes, “I’d like to suggest that there is a fourth section, one that invites you, the reader, to explore your own story of survival, speaking out, finding community, and treasuring your own experiences. If you so choose, you’ll notice these invitations throughout the book.” Shields is making that phantom fourth section visible.

Find Hazlitt on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter