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The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead [Hardcover]

David Shields
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 April 2008
“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

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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 225 pages
  • Publisher: Potter Style; 1 edition (4 April 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307268047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268044
  • Product Dimensions: 2.4 x 22.5 x 15 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 999,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Shields's new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is being published by Knopf on February 23, 2010. His previous book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, (Knopf, 2008), was a New York Times bestseller. He is the author of eight other books, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages: A Novel, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Utne Reader; he's written reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shields has received a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA fellowships, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington. Since 1996 he has also been a member of the faculty in Warren Wilson College's low-residency MFA Program for Writers, in Asheville, North Carolina. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.

Product Description


So pure and wide in its implications that I think of it almost as a secular, unsentimental Kahlil Gibran: a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth (Jonathan Lethem)

Breathtaking . . . Shields had us laughing out loud, even in the face of death (Timeout, Chicago)

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 (Thomas Lynch Boston Globe)

Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer (Wall Street Journal) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

David Shields is the author of nine other books, including Reality Hunger and Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An essay on life giving meaning to life 3 April 2011
By J. H. Bretts VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
David Shields has written a very original and moving book about what time does to the human body and what Shakespeare called the 'seven ages of man', ending with the inevitability of death. A mixture of autobiography, science and humour,at the heart of the book is Shield's relationship with his 97 year old father, a titanic egotistical life force whose mere presence comically undercuts the famous writers and scientists who Shield's quotes approvingly. Recommended.
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this unusual book. In energetic, pointillistic style it leaps from simple anatomical facts to personal reflections on being an (ageing) man, a son, a father. The whole is peppered with quotes from serious and flippant people about the human condition.
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2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I stopped reading. 12 Jun 2011
I really don't like writing bad reviews for books but I gave up on this book - and that is rare for me. I really like an intelligent and thought provoking book and this book is said to be a New York Times best seller so I thought it might be the thing for me. But no. I think the pretentious, fakely profound title should have warned me. What? Does this man think he's the first person who has realised that we are all going to die? I persevered for about 50 pages but there was no story and no characters and, therefore, no reason to keep reading. All the book seemed to consist of is list of obvious facts about the way in which the body changes with age - but we all know that the body ages! I wanted a story, some human content. Maybe this is really a book which appeals to men not women. I was just so disappointed. Was this book really well reviewed by significant publications in America? If so, then this a major case of the emperor's new clothes.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  102 reviews
109 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A much needed addition 10 Feb 2008
By MD in CA - Published on
As a doctor for the very old, I'm often asked for recommendations of books which consider the critical questions about life, aging, and death. While there are great works of literature which address this topic and standard non-fiction books about death or older adults, this is the first book which examines the topic start to finish, providing a great story, scientific and social science data, and the wisdom of hundreds from the ancient greeks to current pop artists. The books structure, with its weave of memoir, fact, and quotes, reflects how we experience and consider these topics. And as any book on this subject should, it doesn't preach but gives the reader the tools and inspiration to think about these important issues for him or herself.
138 of 154 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Griping Against The Grim Reaper 5 Feb 2008
By Inner City Intellect - Published on
David Shields is miffed. His adolescent daughter is a soccer prodigy, romping on the pitch with nary an ache or pain. His father steams towards 100, still vital and prickly in a Catskills stud kind of way. Shields himself is fifty and feels every one of his years. Hangovers are no longer physical but metaphysical, his back is shot and he's developed an obsession with death.

But it's the obsession of a man who, for all his gripes, is engaged in life. Death is a shark out there hovering. But until you put the blood in the water, the shark stays put.

Shields offers alternating chapters of objective data on the body's demise and famous commentary on The Big Sleep with subjective epigrams of pique and pathos. Shields laments but never mopes. He is in awe (and peevishly envious) of his father who somehow has figured out the cosmic joke of existence yet never pauses long enough to let the realization that the joke is on us get him down.

This is a great book, subversive in its brevity and ferocity. A communique of rabbit punches.
48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book! 7 Feb 2008
By P. Nestor - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are some lofty topics that writers--for good reason--hesitate to take on: the meaning of life, the nature of love, what women want, and the pesky issue of mortality are a few that top the list. In a filmed interview, the usually undaunted Jacques Derrida balked when asked, "What is love?" And while he eventually rallied when reminded that all the Greek philosophers spoke of the nature of love (no self-respecting philosopher could ignore that throwing down of the glove), his resistance reminded me that even intellectual heavyweights want to shrug off the tough work of tackling The Big Questions.

The Thing about Life is That One Day You'll be Dead is a bold book that explores this odd duality that exists in each of us: we know we'll die--one day--but we're also quite sure this won't happen to us, somehow we'll be the exception. Reading Shields' book, I became aware that this belief of immortality informs everything we do--toe tapping in line in the grocery store, mindless TV watching, cursing the rain--all speak of our subterranean certainty that we'll be around till the end of time. It's a quirky book, almost outrageous in its structure that follows the decline of the human body, and one well worth reading. And no, it's not depressing; Shields is as funny as he is insightful.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Keeper 6 Feb 2008
By B. Rough - Published on
Shields' new book, The Thing About Life is that One Day You'll Be Dead, is like a mirror: it will look different for every reader. I am not quite middle-aged, and the book gave me a jolt I appreciated: "Get up and live!" Thinking of them often as I read, I had to wonder what it might be like for my 20-something siblings or 50-year-old parents or 60-year-old in-laws or 90-year-old grandparents to read the book. Different, certainly, than it was for me. The book is such a powerful arrangement of narrative, thought, and data that I hesitated, out of deference to the taboo on suggesting that humans die, to send my family copies. But I had to. And I know they will not be able to put the book down, because reading The Thing About Life... feels like watching a train wreck and a beautiful birth at the same time.

I'm picky about the books I open. I'm even more picky about the books I finish. I find that my interest in many nonfiction books (the only kind I read these days) tends to peter out a third of the way through. The Thing About Life..., though, compelled me to the last page--as if I couldn't imagine how it would end. A page-turner of an essay--what a feat. This book is wiser and richer than Mary Roach's Stiff; it invites the reader to peer inside and get reacquainted with the body and soul staring back.
99 of 125 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed in Seattle 8 Feb 2008
By Dennis S. Wulkan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In a sense, this book is a testament to a son's love of his father and probes the father son relationship in an honest, raw and loving way. However, I'm disappointed that the exploration of the life-death paradigm did not explore the core issues, including the real depth of the father son struggle. Unfortunately, this book often becomes self indulgent and passionless in its cool descriptions and lonely anecdotes. It is sprinkled with a collection of interesting but haphazard quotes about life, human biology and death that never coalesce into a grander vision of existence. I'm left with the question, why should I care about Mr. Shields and his father? Why it is necessary for Mr. Shields to tell us about his pernicious acne, bad back, and the size of his erect penis? We learn little about his wife and daughter and are unclear about how his father fits in with the rest of the family. Or, is the point that the father never did embrace the son's family? Ultimately, the salient points could have easily been made in essay form. The book is unsatisfying and I'm left out in the cold wind of a Seattle winter's day.
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