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Culture Watch

In this issue:

The Thing About Life is That One Day You'll Be Dead:
The author's ambivalent relationship to his 97-year-old father is full of love and laughter, but he reveals more than a touch of old wolf/young wolf competition and resentments. The Blue Star is more than just evocative of the early days of World War II. It rings true in every way; The Life of the Skies links our desire to watch birds as coming from a time when apprehending the natural world was a matter of life and death


By David Shields © 2008

Published by Alfred A.Knopf

Hardcover; 225 pp

This quirky little book has much to recommend it. It also has much (including the title) to give a reader pause, not that pausing is necessarily a bad thing. I found myself pausing for lots of reasons, some of them downright savory.

Then again, there were the many and lengthy descriptions of how the human body ages, often rather excruciating in their detail. After a few such lists, (which are a large and repetitive part of the book), I found myself thinking: “Oh no, not again! Do I really want to sit still for yet another description of cell death or muscle deterioration or dimming vision or the struggling synapses and neurons of the elderly mind?”

But as I said, there were plenty of other reasons to pause, as well as to smile and even laugh out loud. Shields is nothing if not honest, direct, and happy to share his life with us. His ambivalent relationship to his 97-year-old father is full of love and laughter, but he also reveals more than a touch of old wolf/young wolf competition and resentments.

There is a chapter on gender differences, full of bits of esoterica, things like: “between the ages of 55 and 64, men are twice as likely as women to die in car accidents and four times as likely to commit suicide...” or “...90 % of centenarians are women...” or “At 60, you’ve lost 25 % of the volume of saliva you normally secrete for food; [thus] it becomes more difficult to digest heavy meats.”

This book is crammed full of such bits of information, sometimes explained, and sometimes just listed. Indeed, there is such a plethora of them that the reader may find herself, as I did, turning away with a brain fried from overload. I should note that after a respite, I was interested enough to resume reading.

Some lists are quite amazing, like the one that notes the ages of famous people when they died: Virgil was 50; Shakespeare was 52; Dante was 56, all of which prompted my incredulous “What? That young?”

There is also a whole chapter entitled: “Last Words.” Some are positively ghoulish in retrospect, like the words of the Air Force Major who was flying bandleader Glenn Miller to France on the flight that vanished over the channel. He was heard to say: “What’s the matter, Miller — do you want to live forever?” Some are brave and touching, like the Greek philosopher Anaxarchus, pounded to death by pestles in the fourth century B.C., who cried: “Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus. You pound not Anaxarchus.” And some are incredibly witty, like Oscar Wild’s last words when he lay dying in a run-down Paris hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”

So all right already: everything that lives dies eventually. While we humans may be on the short end of things compared to the redwood trees, we are way ahead of the May flies, whose life span is measured in hours. Given that we are all on a journey from womb to tomb, how good it is to have someone like Shields looking Death squarely in the eye and finding a whole lot to say about it.


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©2008 Julia Sneden for

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