Synopses & Reviews
Mesmerized — at times unnerved— by his ninety-seven-year-old father's nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion — an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.
Shields begins with the facts of birth and childhood, expertly weaving in anecdotal information about himself and his father. As the book proceeds through adolescence, middle age, old age, he juxtaposes biological details with bits of philosophical speculation, cultural history and criticism, and quotations from a wide range of writers and thinkers — from Lucretius to Woody Allen — yielding a magical whole: the universal story of our bodily being, a tender and often hilarious portrait of one family.
A book of extraordinary depth and resonance, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead will move readers to contemplate the brevity and radiance of their own sojourn on earth and challenge them to rearrange their thinking in unexpected and crucial ways.
"Inspired by the immense vitality of his 90-something father, author Shields (Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine) looks at the arc of a human life in order to come to terms with mortality. Organized into four stages of life-infancy and childhood, adolescence, adulthood and middle age, old age and death-Shields's short, snappy chapters are crafted from personal anecdotes (many featuring his wife and teenage daughter), literary-philosophical musing and enlightening scientific data, examining a wide range of human concerns relating to 'the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else's body as well.' Shields also visits historical and contemporary figures, from Sigmund Freud to John Ruskin and Woody Allen, for their thoughts on mortality; says Picasso, 'One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it's too late.' Shield's eclectic approach and personal voice makes this extended meditation on living and dying a pleasing and occasionally profound read." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"David Shields has accomplished something here so pure and wide in its implications that I almost think of it as a secular, unsentimental Kahlil Gibran: a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth." Jonathan Lethem
"It's a bold writer who dares to tackle head-on the subject of what it means to be human something that David Shields does with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness, humor, and inexhaustible curiosity." Jonathan Raban
"The Thing About Life grabbed me from the start. It's extremely compelling, gorgeous in many places. I loved it. And I wish I had written it." Lauren Slater
"There are paragraphs so finely wrought, so precisely tuned to the narrow-band channels between reader and writer, that the caught breath of inspiration and the sighs of expiration leave us grinning and breathless....This diamond of a book." Boston Globe
"[W]hen Shields sat down to write, he made a wise and generous decision: to convey what he learned in a confident but self-deprecating manner, the way a smart friend might share facts over the dinner table." Seattle Times
"Enthralling, perplexing, illuminating and discombobulated....[A] fascinating, demanding read." San Francisco Chronicle
"Mr. Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer." Wall Street Journal
In this beautifully written book, part philosophical meditation and part physiological examination, Shields confronts his own mortality and that of his persistently optimistic, and seemingly age-defying father.
Mesmerized and somewhat unnerved by his 97-year-old father's vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an original investigation of our flesh-and-blood existence, our mortal being.Weaving together personal anecdote, biological fact, philosophical doubt, cultural criticism, and the wisdom of an eclectic range of writers and thinkers—from Lucretius to Woody Allen—Shields expertly renders both a hilarious family portrait and a truly resonant meditation on mortality.The Thing About Life provokes us to contemplate the brevity and radiance of our own sojourn on earth and challenges us to rearrange our thinking in crucial and unexpected ways.
About the Author
David Shields is the author of eight previous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Black Planet (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award), and Dead Languages (winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award). A senior editor at Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, The Yale Review, the Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and The Believer. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington.
Reading Group Guide
1. The book begins with this sentence: “Let the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.” Do you see this book as a battle between David Shields and his father? If so, what are they arguing about, and who wins in the end?
2. Shields emphasizes the idea that people should face the bare facts of life, including our inevitable decline and death. However, he does not find his own unflinching investigation of the limits of our mortality upsetting. How does his perspective enable him to incorporate but move beyond gloom? How does his father's perspective differ?
3. The book is a mixture of anecdotes from various stages of David Shields's life and his father's life. In addition, the reader is given dozens of quotations, and entire sections that are focused on scientific data about the aging process. What holds all of these different forms of writing together? What did you think of this structure for the book?
4. The book charts the various stages of life. Do any parts of this aging process, as described in the book, frighten you or make you feel other emotions? As you read, how do you relate, personally, to the different stages of life being described? How does this book make you feel about your own aging process?
5. The title of the book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is, in a sense, flippant or humorous. It's also a harsh truth. How does humor work in the book? How does harsh truth work in the book?
6. Over the course of the book, the author provides dozens and dozens of quotations from historical figures, and from other writers. What did you notice about this collection of people, all together? Which individual quotations most resonated with you?
7. What is the role of sports in the book? There are eight sections named “Hoop Dream.” How do these sections, specifically, and sports in general, interact with the themes of the book?
8. Another running theme in the book is fame and popular culture. How do Shields's discussions of fame and popular culture touch on the central themes of the rise and fall of the human body?
9. The book is filled with coexisting dualities: Peter Parker vs. Spiderman, Milt's tough exterior vs. his emotional vulnerability, the urge humans have for our offspring to be like us vs. the hope that they will be nothing like us. How else do you see this theme surfacing in the book? What do you think the author is getting at with these dualities?
10. How does the author incorporate scientific evidence into this book? How does science function in the work for you, the reader?
11. Of all the biological data in the book, which pieces of information have become most clearly lodged in your mind? Were there pieces of this kind of data that you wanted to share with other people? If so, what were they, and why did you want to share them?
12. How would you quantify this book? Is it nonfiction; is it memoir, biography, literary criticism? How does it affect your experience as reader that it is not easy to categorize? Why do you think that the author wrote it this way?
13. In the chapter “Everything I Know I've Learned from My Bad Back,” Shields talks at length about his bad back. What does he mean when he says that “everything” he knows he learned from his bad back? What, in this context, is “everything”?
14. How do you think Milt Shields felt about this book, its publication, and the fact that it became a bestseller? What do you imagine he said to his son about it?
15. The book ends with notes for five different eulogies Shields might give at his father's funeral. Why five eulogies and not one? How do the eulogies differ from one another?
“There are paragraphs so finely wrought, so precisely tuned to the narrow-band channels between reader and writer, that the caught breath of inspiration and the sighs of expiration leave us grinning and breathless. Mix equal parts of anatomy and autobiography, science and self-disclosure, physiology and family history; shake, stir, add dashes of miscellany, pinches of borrowed wisdom, simmer over a low-grade fever of mortality, and a terrible beauty of a book is born. They made a great model when they made his father, and a reliable witness when they made the son. This diamond of a book—brilliant with homage and anecdote—might outlive them both.”
—Thomas Lynch, The Boston Globe
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich and deepen your group's reading of David Shields's The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, a book which begins with the facts of birth and childhood, expertly weaving in anecdotal information about Shields himself, and his father. As the book proceeds through adolescence, middle age, and old age, he juxtaposes biological details with bits of philosophical speculation, cultural history and criticism, and quotations from a wide range of writers and thinkers—from Lucretius to Woody Allen—yielding a magical whole: the universal story of our bodily being, a tender and often hilarious portrait of one family.
Read exclusive essays by David Shields from 2010