The University of Washington professor — a master recycler of his own material — returns with a smart, funny collection of observations, about himself and others.

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“Other People: Takes & Mistakes”

by David Shields

Knopf, $28.95, 384 pages

Maybe David Shields called his new book “Other People: Takes & Mistakes” because he’d already used “Enough About You” in 2002. Or maybe he’s still mad that Norman Mailer beat him to “Advertisements for Myself,” which could serve as the title for about half of the 20 books Shields has written, co-written or edited. “My World—And Welcome to It” is another good fit, if only James Thurber hadn’t gotten there first.

Shields wouldn’t mind. You can’t copyright a book title, and the University of Washington professor has provocative ideas about appropriation, plagiarism and attribution that he aired out in “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” (2010). (Short version: Anything goes.) He’s also a master recycler of his own material, and “Other People” is a collection of essays published over the last 35 years, rearranged into a shiny new thing. If you think you’ve read Shields’ riffs on Bill Murray or Kurt Cobain or Charles Barkley, you probably have, online or in one of his other books or both. His issues with his father, stuttering, acne, sex and self-esteem are pulled off the shelf and presented as part of this greatest-hits collection, his sixth book in the last five years.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they say on “Seinfeld,” a show that Shields told his students is as worthy of study as Faulkner. At his best, Shields is a lit-crit star: smart, funny, observant, engaging, daring, original. His prose has an open, easy flow that’s unusual for a career academic and makes his ideas easier to digest. He swears he can’t tell a story or a joke but it’s not true; his two-page account of running into O.J. Simpson at a Häagen-Dazs is a classic of misdirection with a punchline that makes him the butt of the joke, a quality few writers possess. His curiosity is endless; recent books include an oral history of J.D. Salinger and a study of war photography in The New York Times.

Author appearance

David Shields

The author of “Other People: Takes & Mistakes” will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, at Third Place Books in Seward Park. Information: or 206-474-2200.

But Shields’ first, best and favorite subject is himself, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stand (or understand) anyone else. His profiles of Delilah Luke, the Port Orchard radio personality, and of UW basketball players Loree Payne and Kayla Burt are empathic and solidly reported journalism with a heart. Pieces on tattoos and on baseball players who suddenly lose their skills prove Shields is a thinking-man’s fan when he doesn’t let his athletic obsessions (Gary Payton, Ichiro, his own junior-high hoop dreams) get the best of him.

It all circles back to No. 1, though, and that can sometimes make reading “Other People” feel like being trapped on the express train to Brown University with a bunch of half-drunk semioticians. Shields is a sharp critic, of others and himself, but for every breathtaking insight there’s a corresponding face-palm. As essay about reading a college girlfriend’s diary concludes: “What was—what is—the matter with me? Do I just have a bigger self-destruct button, and I like to push it harder and more incessantly, than everyone else?”

You think?

But a few pages later, a review of William Vollmann’s “Butterfly Stories” goes deeper: “Reading this extraordinarily intimate book about the butterfly boy’s incapacity for ordinary intimacy, I couldn’t identify more closely with him if I crawled inside his skin.”