The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields

March 1st, 2008 at 2:24 pm

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The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead is a difficult-to-define, genre-crossing brooding and searching book that combines biography and biology in an obsessive musing on Death. David Shields’ father is 97. David Shields is obsessed with his father’s vitality and seemingly miraculous health and amazingly long life. So instead of simply being grateful, he wrote a book about his obsession with death and all the related gritty details therein.

Shields hasn’t so much written a book as he has compiled a veritable glut of information, facts, statistics, and quotes on the topic of Death. Oh, the quotes. The quotes are endless. An entire chapter is devoted to quoting people’s last words. But really, every chapter is devoted to quotes.

David Shields has some serious issues he’s trying to work out with this book. His work is obsessively devoted to the minutiae of life, death, aging, and human decay. There are endless facts and statistics detailing the biological processes of human anatomy. In grappling with the abstract indefinite of life, Shields seeks security in the concrete comfort of exact statistics and facts of death.

Shields could have had a few sessions with a shrink. He wrote this book instead. At his daughter’s birthday party at a skating rink, he finds the place terrifying, observing that, “It’s all about amplifying kids’ sense of themselves as magical creatures and converting this feeling into sexual yearning – a group march toward future prospects.”

Huh. Writers.

Shields research was clearly exhaustive. The most fascinating parts of the book were the biological facts and figures coupled with historical quotes. The biographical/memoir sections were boring and distracting to the infinitely more interesting biological/anatomical examination of life and death. Shields spent far too many pages detailing, among other infinitesimal things, his truly disgusting acne as an adolescent, his bad back, and his father’s involvement in baseball. Shrug. I just couldn’t care less. And it’s too bad because Shields has unearthed some truly remarkable and interesting information:

“Brain scans of people processing a romantic gaze, new mothers listening to infant cries, and subjects under the influence of cocaine bear a striking resemblance to one another.”

And:

“Lyndon Johnson frequently urinated in front of his secretary, routinely forced staff members to meet with him in the bathroom while he defecated, and liked to show off his penis, which he nicknamed “Jumbo”; in a private conversation, pressed by a couple of reporters to explain why we were in Vietnam, LBJ unzipped his fly, displayed Jumbo, and said, “This is why.”

I’m not sure what any of this amounts too, and I don’t think Shields does either, but I found it highly entertaining and it kept me chuckling and shaking my head for the couple of hours it took me to read his book.

Shields’ focus is wandering and broad. He touches on everything from something called the “longevity movement” to eating disorders, intelligence, obesity, hair loss, and menopause:

“As women lose estrogen, their pubic hair becomes more sparse, the labia become more wrinkled, and the skin surrounding the vulva atrophies. The cell walls of a woman’s vagina become weaker and more prune to tearing; the vagina gets drier, more susceptible to infection, and – with loss of elasticity – less able to shrink and expand, less accommodating to the insertion of a penis.”

Thanks, David. I know we all needed that.

Shields quotes the seventeenth-century moralist Jean de la Bruyere as saying, “There are but three events in a man’s life: birth, life, and death. He is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live.”

Of the numerous quotes, I wish Shields would take that one to heart and stop his obsessive whining and brooding about his dad and death and life and just lighten up; live a little. But such behavior that annoys me is the same neuroses that produced this book. Which I fairly enjoyed. So what are you going to do?

Read it, I suppose. And all the others.

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