The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead - David Shields

Dale F. Bloom argues that, "far from being a disease, adolescent acne is a normal physiological process that functions to ward off potential mates until the afflicted individual is some years past the age of reproductive maturity, and thus emotionally, intellectually, and physically fit to be a parent." Dale F. Bloom's thesis seems to me unassailable.

The Thing About Life is a difficult book to describe. Partly it's a random collection of facts about us, our bodies, growing and aging and dying; partly it's biographical, about Shields and his aging (but vital) father; partly it's quotations from famous and not-so-famous people about various stages of life. It's hard for me to know what to even say about it, but I'll start with: I enjoyed it. I found myself fascinated by little factoids like "The ability to duplicate foreign sounds disappears after age 12." And then apprehensive: "creativity peaks in the 30s, then declines rapidly..."

The book is roughly organized by age: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, Old Age and Death. Each section then breaks out into various chapters with titles like "Our Birth Is Nothing but Our Death Begun" or "Sex and Death" (there are several of these) or "The Trouble with Being Food." The book is also, somewhat, an ongoing conversation with Shields' own father, who at age 95 was still swimming and playing tennis, refusing to die. There are bits that are addressed directly to his dad ("Contrary to myth, Dad, your nails and hair don't keep growing after you die.") but other parts relate anecdotes about him, or include excerpts of his writing.

I've always loved reading quotations, and Shields sprinkles them liberally throughout the text. Many are grouped by age, so that you get a whole bunch of famous people talking about their 40s, for instance. There's an entire chapter titled "Last Words" which is exactly that. ("Dominique Bouhours, a seventeenth-century French Jesuit who was the leading grammarian of his day, said, 'I am about to—or I am going to—die; either expression is used.'")

In a way, it reminded me a little of Annie Dillard's For the Time Being, in the way that it's about so many things. The Thing About Life also forms an overall picture by coming at it from several different angles, often re-treading similar themes, although Shields' prose is a little more pragmatic and straightforward; well-written but oftentimes purely factual.

If the idea of reading about aging and dying sounds off-putting, you might be surprised by this book. Certainly there are things that I learned that I am not looking forward to, but Shields repeatedly cites his father as a counterexample. The overall feeling is a celebration of life despite the fact that "one day you'll be dead."

Fed to jonathan's brain | June 10, 2008 | Comments (0)


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