Among My Faves: David Sedaris
In 2017, David Sedaris published Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This book of excerpts from Sedaris’s extensive diaries is for serious Sedaris buffs, and I count myself as one. If you’ve never read any work by David Sedaris, do *not* start with Theft by Finding, because it will seem rambling and possibly ridiculous. First go read several of Sedaris’s collections of essays or stories. I especially recommend the following:
- Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) has two sections of essays—one about Sedaris’s youth in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one about his move to France as an adult, with his partner, Hugh Hamrick. The essays about Sedaris’s attempts to learn to speak French are so hilarious that I laughed until tears obscured the words on the page.
- Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) has widely-ranging essays, with a focus on family relationships. Sedaris’s realization that he’s gay is presented frankly and yet with comic self-deprecation.
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) includes one of my favorite Sedaris humor pieces: the story of his trip to Japan to try to quit smoking. His idea was to get far away from his usual haunts to break his habit, but he found that smoking is very common in Japan.
- Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010) is a collection of animal fables, a departure from the usual Sedaris essay form.
- Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) continues with Sedaris’s droll observations on humanity. Of particular note is the essay about Europeans’ reaction to the election of President Obama in 2008.
If we have all these other books about David Sedaris’s upbringing and family members and encounters with odd strangers, why do we need to read his diaries? Well, Theft by Finding provides insights into the creative process that produced so many excellently sardonic essays and stories. For example, there are entries that give the background to Sedaris’s most famous piece, “SantaLand Diaries,” about his experiences working as an elf at Macy’s in New York during the Christmas season. “SantaLand Diaries” appears in his 1994 book, Barrel Fever, and also in his 1997 book, Holidays on Ice, but Theft by Finding records the day in December 1992 when Sedaris first read this essay on National Public Radio and caused a sensation among listeners.
Theft by Finding also includes entries for important events in history, so that you can read Sedaris’s first notice of the AIDS epidemic, as well as his reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001, while he was living in France. In Theft by Finding you can watch the development of Sedaris’s style, from jotted observations to more expanded commentary on those observations. Sedaris notices absolutely everything and is a master at capturing offbeat, ridiculous, and sometimes illegal activities occurring around him. In his twenties, his existence on the fringes of life, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, put him in the company of panhandlers, drunks, and drug addicts. In mid-life, his expanding celebrity status exposed him to the rich and famous, who can be equally absurd. From reading the diaries, you can see how Sedaris blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, taking scenes from real life, amplifying them, and surrounding them with extraordinary contextualizations.
For years, David Sedaris scrimped by on odd jobs—refinishing furniture, cleaning apartments. He kicked his meth habit, cut out alcohol and tobacco, and by sheer hard work became one of the most celebrated humor essayists in the English language. He’s among my favorites.