David Shields’ The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead manages to be simultaneously heart-breakingly depressing whilst also somewhat optimistic. It’s a book about ageing and death, and it alternates between quite hard (and often statistical) science and anecdotal stories about Shields’ and his father’s life.
Yes, it’s another memoiry book about paternal relationships. In this one, the crux is thus: Shields’ father is 97 years old and a big fan of life – he exercises, he romances, he reads, he learns – whilst Shields himself is 51, middle-aged and fixated on death. The man closer to death is worrying about it less, enjoying the time that remains, whilst the younger man is doing the opposite.
This is a research heavy book – the science is detailed and complex, the statistics about life expectancy, cancer rates, suicide rates, dementia rates, the rate of bodily decay, the effects of ageing on genitalia, on internal organs, on the brain, on skin, on behaviour and energy and happiness and health is… It’s overwhelming when presented like this: we’re all dying, and we’re all getting older. I doubt many people will find themselves reading a book like this at an age younger that 25 (I certainly haven’t), which is deemed by Shields’ research as the point where the body really starts to fall apart. In fact, aside from the fact that people are likely to have more sex between 27 and 34* as the biological/social urge to reproduce kicks in, there is nothing physical, intellectual, emotional or fucking anything to look forward to from 25 onwards, unless you happen to get on with your children**.
The body is a wreck, a mess, a falling apart vessel for the reproduction of genes and genetics – each individual is valueless, alive only long enough to rear its children and continue on the species. It is the species itself, not one individual within it, that counts.
But that’s bleak. And The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead isn’t relentlessly bleak. All the science is, all the hard facts are, because we will all die – a lot of the sections about bodily decline are written in the second person, which makes them particularly arresting. However, the book also contains lots about the joys of existence – about food and adventure and love and animals and friendship and anecdote and exercise and all sorts of other, less fun, things that the strait-laced Shields clan enjoy doing with their lives. It is possible to be happy, Shields writes, but it is impossible to never die – even in the section at the end that deals with the science behind science fiction ideas of immortality, it is very clearly stated that this is impossible. A point Shields doesn’t even need to make is that even if all ageing is prevented and all diseases destroyed, there are still an infinite number of other ways to die, and if someone lives infinitely, eventually their life and an accident will collide. The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead.
It’s the “you” that makes the book engaging – death is coming, my body is ageing and slowly falling apart and will continue to do so until-
It’s not an easy read. It’s upsetting in many places, particularly within the personal anecdotes and many quotations that are included in the text***. It’s a deeply felt book – informed and informative, but also human and warm. It made me laugh as many times as it made me cry, and it made me smile widely for every occasion in made me stare at the floor and consider biting my wrists open as decay is all I have to look forward to.
Because we do die, we will die, we are going to die. What we must never ask of ourselves is this: What is the point in doing anything at all, if one day we’ll just be dust?
There isn’t one. But nor is there any point in not trying to be as happy and fulfilled as possible.
I want to enjoy myself. The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead has reminded me that one day I’ll be dead. And if it happened tomorrow, I’d be fucking livid.
Live, is the message of the book (particularly from Shields’ nonagenarian father), live while you can.
Live, to alter the pronoun, while I can.
Highly recommended. (Unless you’re depressed, in which case it might push you over the edge.)
* Which, let’s be honest and un-American, is not necessarily a good thing.
** A caveat Shields does not explicitly add, but even I am able to (uncharacteristically) see the message.
*** A la Shields’ masterpiece, Reality Hunger.