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As David Shields and I sit in decent KeyArena seats to watch the Sonics' third playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, I'm not sure how to keep the conversation rolling for this article. I want to talk about writing, and thought a basketball game would be a great place to do this because all of his books say something about basketball--with one exception, the quote book Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro. I especially want to talk about Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography, a peculiar literary collage that includes long and short meditations on literature, sports, Seattle, and pop culture figures, all through the lens of writing autobiographically.
I also want to discuss what is probably his best known book, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (1999), which is obsessed with how racial dramas are fleshed out in sports journalism, radio, and daily conversations. But I don't follow sports, and so can't talk about the game, whereas all Shields talks about is the game. At one time-out in the second quarter, for example, I comment on how tossing balled-up T-shirts into the audience is like some kind of bread-and-circus routine, but he isn't interested in this curious aspect of the game; he instead talks about how they really need to put Vin Baker back into the game. Unfortunately, the Sonics totally unravel by halftime. (They lose 102-75.) So we talk about writing.
Enough About You is a sort of organized mess. There are five sections after the prologue--"M-m-e," "Me," "Me as You," "Me and You," and "You as Me"--all of which are broken down into chapters containing essays, literary criticisms, and fiction. As the section titles point out, there are a number of different ways to frame the character called "me." Shields brings to the surface of the page the self/other consciousness found in writing, in the forms of both author/subject and author/reader--but also, because every piece of writing is self-reflective, author/author. At the end of 23 chapters, the compact 174-page book resembles an inward-gazing kaleidoscope. However, it avoids what you might expect from self-obsessed writing. It's not teenage-diary solipsism, as his writing style is upbeat, sometimes even funny, and he's not interested in getting to the bottom of his feelings. Also, Enough About You is not navel-gazing, because he writes about himself through writing about sports, books, Seattle, etc. Shields is at once self-obsessed and fully engaged in the world around him.
Ultimately, as Shields is glad to point out, this thoroughly indulged self-consciousness places one comfortably into the world. After asking himself what makes J. D. Salinger such a brilliant writer, he writes: "For me, it's how his voice, to a different degree and in a different way in every book, talks back to itself, how it listens to itself talking, comments upon what it hears, and keeps talking. This self-awareness... is the pleasure and burden of being conscious, and the gift of his work--what makes me less lonely and makes life more livable--lies in its revelation that this isn't a deformation in how I think; this is how human beings think."
Such abstract angles found in Shields' writing recall his job (an English and Creative Writing professor at the University of Washington) and his education (a graduate of Brown and the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop). At some point in the Sonics' depressed fourth quarter, I ask if I can sit in on one of his classes, to get a view of "the other David Shields" (he smirks at the Jekyll/Hyde professor/sports fanatic analogy I'm trying out). He explains that he's on sabbatical this year. I say maybe we can meet at his office or something, to which he replies, possibly as a joke, "Sure... but there's no place less important to me than my UW office."
David Shields is currently a professor in a professor's true form: absent. But unlike a classic professor, on his sabbatical year he's not buried in dusty books or smoking his pipe in Paris. He's working on his next book of essays, tentatively titled Body Politic: Sport & Culture, and is once again mining the glittering depths of pop culture phenomena, this time to see how the human body, engaged in sport, serves as a locus of political expression.
At some point in the fourth quarter of Seattle's hapless encounter with San Antonio, when there's no hope of catching up, all the star players from both teams are replaced by their lesser-seen teammates. Though I would have preferred a hometown victory, I explain to Shields, I actually enjoy this moment in basketball: The game has already been "decided" and they're just killing time. It doesn't seem that anyone's even looking at the score anymore. "I know what you mean," Shields says, "and they're just playing basketball."