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Why David Shields Can’t Read the ‘Greatest Book Ever Written’ Anymore

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.

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