Book review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Recently I moved cities, so the length of my commute has more than doubled. Frankly, I don’t mind it, because the number of books I get to read has increased exponentially.

I just finished David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell you how I heard about it. Most times I’ll read a review or recommendation for a book online, scribble it down, request it from the public library, and then scratch my head with confusion when it arrives some time later. Now I imagine gracious library gods who do the selecting based on their infinite wisdom and wicked cataloguing system.

Reality Hunger definitely came out of the sky for me. It’s far more philosophical than books I’ve been reading lately (cough, YA lit, cough). Shields offers a “collage” (a word he uses a lot) of quotations and personal insights, divided into 26 sections (after each letter of the alphabet), attempting to define our understanding of, and desire for, representations of reality.

The quotations are cited only as footnotes, and at first I kept flipping back and forth between the front and back of the book (argh! the reason why I still haven’t finished Infinite Jest!), but then I realized that the quotations intentionally blended with Shields’ own writing. The book is curated rather than written, like a catalogue of information snippets arranged as a new product (again, collaging). It’s more like a Lil Wayne mixtape of a book – original sources selected, tinkered with and injected with original material to create something that had never existed.

Even if I can’t promise that I completely followed some of the denser theory points, the book nicely complements our blurb-y tech culture, in which we over-tab our browsers and attempt to voraciously consume googles of information only to let it pass right through us.

This “bite-sized” structure not only soothes your scattered, internet-soaked brain, but makes an excellent commute read. I was able to jump from section to section with ease, just the way I’ve been trained to do (helpful when you are being jostled on a crowded train).

I must expose my shallowness and say that the first chapters, when Shields expounds on reality television and the overwhelming popularity of memoirs (or misery lit as it is known), engaged me the most. Both promise reality, but are processed enough in order to adhere to templated characters, plots, and redemptive arcs. The bad girl on a reality tv show is as much a stock character as the acrobat clown was in the 1700s.

There’s so much more to the book that I am not doing justice to – death of the novel, performance art, power of the viewer. Etc. But I imagine that the book was not made to be consumed in one sitting (or in several BART rides), but opened occasionally and perused. I would suggest that it would make a great 365 day desk calendar. And I imagine Shields would not take that as an insult, at all.