Remote readers' guide
Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity
Written by David Shields
Biography and Autobiographical – Personal Memoirs; Popular Culture – General | University of Wisconsin Press | Paperback, 180 pages | 2003 | $16.95 | ISBN 0-299-19364-0 (978-0299193645) | Originally published by Knopf in 1996
“Remote should, in retrospect, be seen as one of the definitive texts of the 1990s . . . a mordant meditation on the odd way we live now—in the thrall of celebrity, at the mercy of the media, at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice” —A. O. Scott, Newsday
In this truly one-of-a-kind book, the author/narrator—a representative, in extremis, of contemporary American obsession with beauty, celebrity, transmitted image—finds himself suspended, fascinated, in the remoteness of our wall-to-wall mediascape. It is a remoteness that both perplexes and enthralls him.
Through dazzling sleight of hand in which the public becomes private and the private becomes public, the entire book—clicking from confession to family-album photograph to family chronicle to sexual fantasy to pseudo-scholarly footnote to reportage to personal essay to stand-up comedy to cultural criticism to literary criticism to film criticism to prose-poem to litany to outtake—becomes both an anatomy of American culture and a searing self-portrait.
David Shields reads his own life—reads our life—as if it were an allegory about remoteness and finds persuasive, hilarious, heartbreaking evidence wherever he goes.
1. The book is collage-like. Why do you think the author chose a fragmented structure for this book in particular? With this in mind, what do you think the book is “about”?
2. Discuss the various meanings of the title; in what ways is the book about remoteness?
3. How do you compare your own consumption of the media, and your attitude toward the media, with the author’s?
4. The book often touches on the titillating feeling of finding oneself in proximity to a famous person (O.J. Simpson, Kurt Cobain, Brooke Shields, Joseph Schildkraut, Oprah Winfrey, et al.). Have you ever seen a famous person and felt compelled to tell people about the experience? What in your view seems to lie behind such an impulse?
5. In the prologue, quoting an imagined famous version of himself on television at some point in the future, Shields writes: “‘My parents didn’t preach against these things themselves but against wanting these things,’ I hear the famous author say.” The book is, to an extent, about the illicitness of our desire for fame. Do you agree that this desire is, in a way, taboo? Why?
6. How does the author view the celebrities he encounters?
7. Many of the section-titles repeat, including “The Nimbus Of His Fame Makes A Nullity Of Us All,” “Almost Famous,” “Where We Live And What We Live For,” and “Why We Live At The Movies.” Discuss why you think those titles repeat, and what each of them mean.
8. The book is full of photographs—snapshots of Shields’s childhood, glossy pictures of celebrities, Shields’s author photos, etc. How do these images function in the book, and what do they mean to you? What is your favorite picture or set of pictures in the book?
9. This book was initially published in 1996. How have changes in the media landscape, especially the extensive presence of the web and cell phones, changed the issues Remote discusses? What has remained the same?
10. In what ways are popular culture and media seen as an obstacle to the formation of community?
11. Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, Carolyn See wrote, “[Remote is] a mishmash, a potpourri; it’s impersonal, it’s embarrassingly revealing. It’s very funny, and it tells us more than we want to know about American life.” Consider the various tones Shields uses throughout the book—humorous, impersonal, etc.; how do these variations in tone affect your reading experience?
12. One of the book’s recurring themes is the difference between being a participant and being an observer. The author spends most of his time watching various types of media rather than engaging in physical activities. Is this true in your own life as well?
13. The book deals with issues of identity, in particular our public versus private identities. Is there such a thing as an “authentic” identity? Discuss the personae that you encountered in the book, including the author’s persona, in terms of authenticity or “realness.”
14. Has this book made you change your attitudes toward pop culture? Will it change your consumption of the media?
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Updated May 4, 2009© 2009, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System