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The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll…
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The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead

by David Shields

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The thing about this book is that sometimes it annoys. I actually decided to stop reading it when I was halfway through. But the other thing about this book is that often it's very interesting. Probably it's about half and half, and the half you like better (or the half you'll find annoying) will depend on what kind of writing you respond to.

There are roughly three modes of discourse in the book: the personal/family memoir, the straight scientific fact, and the liberal heaping doses of quotations from others.

The aspects of personal memoir are generally rather interesting. Shields's discussion of life as a quick progression toward sexual maturity and a long, long decline toward death is framed by a kind of sketchy dual biography of himself and his father. It's easy to see why he is fixated on his father, who is 97 at the time of the book's writing. He's a colorful guy, personable, quick with a story, and unrelenting in his desire to live as long as possible.

The scientific facts are often interesting, sometimes depressing in their bare expression of our biological condition. I often found these quite thought-provoking, although at times they provoked thoughts that preferred not to be disturbed. Anyone who is distinctly uncomfortable with contemplating his or her own mortality is hereby warned not to pick up this book. At other times, the litany of facts about the human body, how it matures, perpetuates its genetic code, and eventually breaks down feel too unleavened by some other voice. Fact after fact after fact can weigh on the reader, and after a while I felt justified in skimming some portions.

Finally, the cascade of quotes often have the same effect the scientific facts have. In fact, this is the least engaging aspect of the book. While Shields has plucked many excellent quotes and arranged them in a kind of conversation among themselves at times, this method felt unmediated by an authorial presence at times. Given that his more recent book, Reality Hunger, plays up this mode, it's clear he intended something like this. Perhaps in time this will seem brilliant. For now, given that I'm still very much attached to the kinds of storytelling traditions that Shields seems to find outmoded and restricting, this is where we part ways. I more often skimmed the quotes than I did the science, because, while there is a similar sense in both modes of reading an unmediated recitation of someone else's words, science has a tendency toward a direct, somewhat generic tone. I feel less assaulted by an array of literary "talking heads" when Shields layers on the facts, even if a glance at the source material would suggest he's operating at the same scant level of intervention in both cases.

Having been as annoyed as I've been with this book, I can't give it a particularly high rating. But since I found it compelling enough to come back to it even after quitting it, I can't give it a particularly low rating. Readers seem very much split on this one, either loving it or hating it. I did both in turn, so I'll land in the middle and hope that suggests both the worthwhile benefits of the book and the drawback inherent in its idiosyncratic execution. And in case you're on the fence, I'll reiterate the conclusion that's already featured prominently in the title: Everybody dies, even you. ( )
  phredfrancis | Feb 8, 2014 |
So here I am, facing down 40 and feeling better physically and emotionally than I have in several years. The last thing I needed was to read this book, which I picked up because it has been designated as assigned reading for all first-year undergraduates at my school.
The Thing About Life is categorized by the publisher as a biography. As a biography, the book succeeds in fits and starts, with tenderly rendered passages about the author's childhood, and especially about his father, an interesting and vividly drawn character, someone I liked learning about.
However, Shields has inserted these biographical passages into a repetitive, finger-wagging meditation on death. It goes something like this:
You're going to die: yes, you. By the way, my father has remained vital well into his nineties. He's an interesting guy -- here's a tidbit about him. Oh, and you're going to die, and here are some details about how you and I will physically deteriorate as we age. Here are some early sexual experiences that I remember. Did you know that once we've reproduced, nature is done with us and it's time for us to die? Here's a story of my father, striving for connection with others and trying to give his life meaning. But the thing is, we all fail in the end because we DIE. And before that we'll get sick, feeble and ugly. Wanna hear some quotes from famous people about death?
Here's a sentence from this book that sums it up for me: "You find this information soul-killing; I find it thrilling, liberating."
Well, yes, I happen to know that one day I will die. And on days when I have some perspective on things, that knowledge can remind me to appreciate life, not take the small stuff too seriously, and not take my days on earth for granted.
But -- BUT: I'd rather focus on the living of my life than on the dying of my life. Perhaps this book was therapeutic for the author as he wrote it, but it was a lousy experience for me as a reader. Reading this book made me feel like I'd been listening to hour upon hour of well-crafted, well-played dirges. I'd rather have done something else with those bits of my limited time on earth. And I am glad that I wasn't asked to read this as a college freshman, when I was rightfully concerned with living my young, hopeful life, and didn't require that this hope be framed within extended meditations on my eventual decline and demise. ( )
  ksimon | Feb 6, 2014 |
Despite both positive and negative reviews regarding this book and its subject, I think it is worth reading. I explain why, among other things, here: http://mewlhouse.hubpages.com/hub/One-Day-You-Will-Be-Dead ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
When people ask me, “What do people mean when they talk about personal essay?” I can do no better than refer them to this book.

David Shields combines info about the gradual decline and decay of the body with stories about his own life at fifty-one and stories about the life of his father, now 97.

Absolutely mesmerizing. I loved this book. ( )
  debnance | Mar 29, 2013 |
I couldn't figure out what this was: memoir? biology lesson? All the same, it was grandly entertaining. Shields' love for his father is quite evident, and his stories and memories weave an interesting tangle in this book. On the other hand, Shields spends a great deal of time talking about mammalian biology, sex, attraction, procreation, and, well, death. This book is a study of the human mindset of death, and our complete inability to embrace aging, if you will. I enjoyed reading this book. ( )
1 vote carrieprice78 | Apr 6, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307268047, Hardcover)

Amazon Significant Seven, February 2008: "After you turn 7, your risk of dying doubles every eight years." By your 80s, you "no longer even have a distinctive odor ... You're vanishing." "The brain of a 90-year-old is the same size as that of a 3-year-old." And it goes on and on. David Shields's litany of decay and decrepitude might have overwhelmed the age-sensitive reader (like this one), but The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead manages to transcend the maudlin by melding personal history with frank biological data about every stage of life, creating an "autobiography about my body" that seeks meaning in death, but moreover, life. Shields filters his frank--and usually foreboding--data through his own experience as a 51-year-old father with burgeoning back pain, contrasting his own gloomy tendencies with the defiant perspective of his own 97-year-old father, a man who has waged a lifelong, urgent battle against the infirmities of time. (If believed, his love life at age 70 was truly marvelous.) Interwoven with observations of philosophers from Cicero and Sophocles to Lauren Bacall and Woody Allen ("I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying."), Shields's book is a surprisingly moving and life-affirming embrace of the human condition, where inevitable failures and frailties become "thrilling" and "liberating," rather than dour portents of The End. --Jon Foro Amazon.com Guest Review: Danielle Trussoni David Shields's The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead is an addictively punchy, startlingly brilliant exploration of our most essential relationship--the one between parent and child. Shields juxtaposes a storm of astonishing facts about the development of the human body ("By the time you're 5, your head has attained 90 percent of its mature size; by 7, your brain reaches 90 percent of its maximum weight; by 9, 95 percent; during adolescence, 100 percent") with an intimate portrait of himself as a son and father. The result is a naked, honest, and often funny book that forces one to look clearly at the realities of the body--especially the burden that biology imposes upon our inner life--in a fresh and disturbing way. The writing is fast, postmodern, and filled with quotations from such diverse sources as Shields's back doctor and Tolstoy. The style might be dizzying in the hands of a less perceptive narrator, but Shields has the eye of an archeologist cataloging the bizarre traits of an ancient civilization. How Shields managed to compress the whole mess of love, family, genetics, and desire into this elegant, elemental book is a wonder. --Danielle Trussoni, author of Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:47:33 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The author melds personal history with frank biological data about every stage of life, creating an "autobiography about my body" that seeks meaning in death, but moreover, life. Shields filters his frank--and usually foreboding--data through his own experience as a 51-year-old father with burgeoning back pain, contrasting his own gloomy tendencies with the defiant perspective of his own 97-year-old father, a man who has waged a lifelong, urgent battle against the infirmities of time.--From amazon.com.… (more)

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