Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

David Shields

New York Times Bestselling Writer
Author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • The New Nonfiction
  • Genre-Bending
  • Who Owns Ideas? Copyright, Plagiarism, and New Forms for the 21st Century
  • Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
  • An Evening with David Shields

“Maybe he’s simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation.” —Newsweek

“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.” —Thomas Lynch

“A generation from now, when we pick up our flex-tablets or digi-goggles and read about literature at the turn of the twenty-first century, there’s a chance we’ll see it referred to as the David Shields era.” —Barnes & Noble Review

David Shields is the author of  twenty books, including Other People: Takes & Mistakes (Knopf, 2017); I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel (Knopf, 2015); War is Beautiful: A Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict (powerHouse Books, 2015); How Literature Saved My Life (Knopf, 2013); The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestselling novel; and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which was named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications. Reality Hunger is the culmination of Shields’s life-long exploration of communication, miscommunication, mass culture, nonfiction, and genre-blur. The New York Times said it “urgently and succinctly addresses matters that have been in the air, have relentlessly gathered momentum, and have just been waiting for someone to link them together” and “probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come.” Chuck Klosterman said it “might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years.”

Other books include 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, Salon, and Slate, and his work has been translated into twenty languages. Shields’s work is concerned with disclosure, rather than silence, and he’s interested in demotic, democratic disclosure rather than disclosure reserved only for certain people. He’s devoted to literary and emotional risk and to the attendant anxiety within himself and the reader and the culture as a whole. In 2015 he was awarded the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for exceptional originality in his work.

He is currently collaborating with James Franco on three film projects. Franco’s adaptation of I Think You’re Totally Wrong is premiering in April at the DOXA documentary film festival in Vancouver. Return to Black Planet: The Dream of a Unified Field Theory of Love has been filmed and is now being edited. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead is in pre-production.

In one of his most popular talks, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes of expression obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields brilliantly reframes debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality”—precisely because we experience hardly any—and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience.

David Shields’s website

David Shields is the author of twenty books, including Other People: Takes & Mistakes; War is Beautiful, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A QuarrelHow Literature Saved My LifeThe Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller; and Reality Hunger: A Manifest, the culmination of Shields’s life-long exploration of communication, miscommunication, mass culture, nonfiction, genre-blur, and “reality.” His other books include 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, Salon, and Slate.

Other People: Takes & Mistakes investigates a series of interrelated questions: Can one person know another person? How do we live through other people? How do other people live through us? Is the gap between people fillable? If
not, how does or doesn’t art fill the gap?

David Shields has reconceived and recombined dozens of essays—written over the last thirty years—in order to form not a miscellany or a memoir but
a sustained meditation on otherness. The result, Shields’s twentieth book, is some-
thing of a revelation. This is what he’s been writing about, and toward, all along: the need for one person to understand another person completely, the impossibility of any such absolute knowing, and the erotics of this separation.

The book is divided into five sections—Men, Women, Athletes, Performers, and
Alter Egos. The topics range from sexual desire to information sickness, George
W. Bush to Kurt Cobain, women’s eyeglasses to Greek tragedy, Howard Cosell to Bill Murray, the comedy of high school journalism to the agony of first
love, tattoos to bumper stickers. Throughout, Shields’s focus is on the multiplicity of perspectives informing any situation, on the irreducible logjam of human interaction.

Bestselling author David Shields analyzed over a decade’s worth of front-page war photographs from The New York Times and came to a shocking conclusion: the photo-editing process of the “paper of record,” by way of pretty, heroic, and lavishly aesthetic image selection, pulls the wool over the eyes of its readers; Shields forces us to face not only the the media’s complicity in dubious and catastrophic military campaigns but our own as well. This powerful media mouthpiece, the mighty Times, far from being a check on governmental power, is in reality a massive amplifier for its dark forces by virtue of the way it aestheticizes warfare. Anyone baffled by the willful American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t help but see in this book how eagerly and invariably the Times led the way in making the case for these wars through the manipulation of its visuals. Shields forces the reader to weigh the consequences of our own passivity in the face of these images’ opiatic numbing. The photographs gathered in War Is Beautiful, often beautiful and always artful, are filters of reality rather than the documentary journalism they purport to be.

In That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, actress and voice-over artist Samantha Matthews offers—in the form of an extended monologue, prompted and arranged by New York Times bestselling author (and Matthews’s cousin once removed) David Shields—a vivid investigation of her startling sexual history. From her abuse at the hands of a family member to her present-day life in Barcelona, where she briefly moonlighted as a dubber of Italian pornography into English, Matthews reveals herself to be a darkly funny, deeply contemporary woman with a keen awareness of how her body has been routinely hijacked, and how she has been “formatted” by her early trauma. Her story is a study of her uneasy relationships with female desire, her tormentors, and her lovers—with whom she seeks out both the infliction and receipt of harm. This book is an attempt, sometimes self-thwarted, to break down barriers: sexual and emotional for Matthews, literary for Shields.


“A worthy and important addition to the [book-in-dialogue] genre, this casual conversation pushes readers to rethink fundamental questions about life and art.”
—Publishers Weekly

An impassioned, funny, probing, fiercely inconclusive, nearly-to-the-death debate, about life and art—cocktails included. Caleb Powell always wanted to become an artist, but he overcommitted to life (he’s a stay-at-home dad to three young girls). David Shields always wanted to become a human being, but he has overcommitted to art. At antipodes since first meeting twenty-five years ago, they headed to a cabin in the Cascade Mountains and threw down. The focus? Life vs. Art. Over the next four days they played chess, shot hoops, hiked, relaxed in a hot tub, watched My Dinner with André, Sideways, The Trip, and talked about everything they could think of—genocide, marriage, sex, Toni Morrison, sports, porn, the death penalty, baldness, evil, James Wood, happiness, sports radio, George Bush, drugs, death, betrayal, alcohol, Rupert Murdoch, Judaism, bad book titles—in the name of exploring their central question. While confounding, as much as possible, the divisions between “reality” and “fiction” and between “life” and “art,” their dialogue remains dazzlingly provocative and entertaining from start to finish.

SALINGER (Biography, 2013)
Based on eight years of exhaustive research and exclusive interviews with more than 200 people—and published in coordination with the international theatrical release of a major documentary film from the Weinstein Company—Salinger is a global cultural event: the definitive biography of one of the most beloved and mysterious figures of the twentieth century. In the eight years since the book was begun, and especially in the three years since Salinger’s death, the authors interviewed on five continents more than 200 people, many of whom had previously refused to go on the record about their relationship with Salinger. This oral biography offers direct eyewitness accounts from Salinger’s World War II brothers-in-arms, his family members, his close friends, his lovers, his classmates, his neighbors, his editors, his publishers, his New Yorker colleagues, and people with whom he had relationships that were secret even to his own family. Shields and Salerno illuminate most brightly the last fifty-six years of Salinger’s life: a period that, until now, had remained completely dark to biographers. Provided unprecedented access to never-before-published photographs (more than 100 throughout the book), diaries, letters, legal records, and secret documents, readers will feel they have, for the first time, gotten beyond Salinger’s meticulously built-up wall. The result is the definitive portrait of one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century.


“Here is a mind on fire, a writer at war with the page…these rigorous, high-octane, exhaustive yet taut ruminations on ambivalence, love, melancholy, and mortality are like an arrow to the brain.” —Kristy David, O, The Oprah Magazine

In his most wonderfully intelligent, stunningly honest, and painfully funny book, acclaimed writer David Shields uses himself as a representative for all readers and writers who seek to find salvation in literature. Blending confessional criticism and anthropological autobiography, Shields explores the power of literature (from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Renata Adler’s Speedboat to Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past) to make life survivable, maybe even endurable. And he shares with us a final irony: he wants “literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.” A captivating, thought-provoking, utterly original way of thinking about the essential acts of reading and writing.

JEFF, ONE LONELY GUY (Nonfiction, 2012)

“The symphony of voices here is an overwhelming reading experience. This short book is also a verification of a legitimate new form of narrative; it’s the definitive document so far of where our medium is heading. I’ve never read anything like it.” —Bret Easton Ellis

In October 2011, Jeff Ragsdale, down-and-out and depressed after a devastating breakup, posted a flyer around Lower Manhattan that said, “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3178. Jeff, one lonely guy.” He figured he’d get a dozen calls; instead, he got hundreds, then thousands once pictures of the flyer went viral on the internet. The calls came from all over the country and the world. People wanted to talk, to confess-most of all, to connect. So far, he has received more than 65,000 calls and texts. Together with David Shields and Michael Logan, Jeff remixed hundreds of calls, voicemails, and texts-over the course of this short, powerful book, Jeff forms intense connections with people desperate to talk to someone who will listen and not judge. In return, he reveals painful secrets about himself.


“I don’t think it would be too strong to say that Shields’s book will be a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers.” —David Griffith

Fresh from his acclaimed exploration of mortality in the genre-defying, best-selling The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, David Shields has produced an open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century. Shields’s manifesto is an ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists who, living in an unbearably artificial world, are breaking ever larger chunks of “reality” into their work. The questions Shields explores—the bending of form and genre, the lure and blur of the real-play out constantly around us, and Reality Hunger is a radical reframing of how we might think about this “truthiness”: about literary license, quotation, and appropriation in television, film, performance art, rap, and graffiti, in lyric essays, prose poems, and collage novels. Drawing on myriad sources, Shields takes an audacious stance on issues that are being fought over now and will be fought over far into the future. Converts will see Reality Hunger as a call to arms; detractors will view it as an occasion to defend the status quo. It is certain to be one of the most controversial and talked about books of the season.


“A double memoir-commonplace book in which Shields presents his and his father’s life stories, lovingly encrusted with facts about aging and death (it turns out your soul doesn’t weigh 21 grams after all, and your hair and nails do not keep growing postmortem) and quotations (‘After 30, a man wakes up sad every morning, excepting perhaps five or six, until the day of his death’ —Emerson). The result is an edifying, wise, unclassifiable mixture of filial love and Oedipal rage. ‘I want him to live forever,’ Shields writes, ‘and I want him to die tomorrow.'” —Lev Grossman, Time Magazine

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. 


I was waiting my turn at the pharmacy when a 20-something, accompanied by his pretty, punky girlfriend, tried to cut in line. I told him to go to the back. He said, “What is this, junior high?” I said, “No, this is the line for the pharmacy, but the way you’re acting—” He asked why I couldn’t grow hair on my head. I wondered why he hadn’t grown any taller. It was a very high-level exchange. He pushed me; I pushed him. He raised his fists and said, “Let’s go.” Forty years receded, and it was as if I’d returned to fifth grade, the last time I was in a fight: I got a huge adrenaline surge, I could hear my heart thumping, and I couldn’t quite catch my breath. I declined the drugstore fisticuffs, but I replied—with the emphatic approval of my middle-aged comrades in line—”Life has rules.” It does? I was apalled; it never occurred to me that I would ever say anything remotely resembling this. If life has rules, what are they? At a party recently, I overheard a woman, attempting to seduce a young man half her age, say, “I’m 45, but I’m tight.” That’s pretty much it: sex and death. Reproduction and oblivion.

REALITY HUNGER (nonfiction excerpt)

An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw”material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

DEAD LANGUAGES (excerpt from novel)

The big city boy, who hates the city, leaves the city to perfect a speech in praise of the absolute supremacy of the city. The audience, impatient to applaud, doesn’t perceive that the greatest orator in Western civilization often speaks with seaweed sliding out his mouth. Why would someone for whom talking was torture want to talk all the time before thousands of Athenians? Because otherwise he’d have drowned himself at high tide. My sister—so shy, so sincere—once wanted to be an actress. The best jazz drummer I’ve ever heard had only one arm. We all choose a calling that’s the most radical contradiction of ourselves.

And what’s my calling?