David Shields recommends 26 shifting nonfictions


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David Shields, the author of ‘Reality Hunger,’ couldn’t help but notice the buzz when a new biography of Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, above, said he invented some of his nonfiction. It’s the latest in a series of small turmoils about truth and fiction -- James Frey’s memoir, Charles Pellegrino’s history of World War II -- that Shields has been tracking. ‘Why does this keep happening over and over and over again?’ Shields asks in Off the Shelf. ‘Have we suddenly become a nation of liars? Of lawyers?’

From the beginning of time, nonfiction writers have invented. In ‘The History of the Peloponnesian Wars,’ Thucydides made up the generals’ speeches. Thomas DeQuincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ is a heavily fictionalized account of DeQuincey’s addiction to and recovery from opium. Edmund Gosse’s ‘Father and Son’ recounts page after page of supposedly verbatim dialogue from 50 years earlier. George Orwell’s classmates questioned virtually every detail of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys.’... Nonfiction isn’t ‘true.’ It’s a framing device to foreground contemplation, or at least it is in the nonfiction I love the most -- nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art. I want to redefine nonfiction upward -- taking nonfiction’s limits and reframing them so that nonfiction can be a serious investigation of what’s ‘true,’ what’s knowledge, what’s ‘fact,’ what’s memory, what’s self, what’s other. I don’t want a nonfiction full of ‘lies.’ I want a nonfiction that explores our shifting, unstable, multiform, evanescent experience in and of the world.


To make his case, Shields recommends 26 shifting, unstable nonfictions. That list is after the jump.

James Agee, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’Nicholson Baker, ‘U & I’Terry Castle, ‘My Heroin Christmas’E.M. Cioran, ‘The Temptation to Exist’Bernard Cooper, ‘Maps to Anywhere’Alphonse Daudet, ‘In the Land of Pain’Annie Dillard, ‘For the Time Being’Geoff Dyer, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’Amy Fusselman, ‘The Pharmacist’s Mate’Eduardo Galeano, ‘The Book of Embraces’Simon Gray, ‘The Smoking Diaries’ (four volumes)Spalding Gray, ‘Morning, Noon, and Night’Sven Lindqvist, ‘A History of Bombing’Mary McCarthy, ‘Memories of a Catholic Girlhood’Leonard Michaels, ‘Shuffle’V.S. Naipaul, ‘A Way in the World’Maggie Nelson, ‘Bluets’Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensées’Fernando Pessoa, ‘The Book of Disquiet’François le Rochefoucauld, ‘Maxims’W.G. Sebald, ‘The Emigrants’Lauren Slater, ‘Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir’George W.S. Trow, ‘Within the Context of No Context’David Foster Wallace, ‘Consider the Lobster’Joe Wenderoth, ‘Letters to Wendy’s’Geoffrey Wolff, ‘The Duke of Deception’

-- Carolyn Kellogg