Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Theft by Finding by David Sedaris. (Little, Brown and Company)
I’ve noticed that I have to actively discourage myself from buying authors’ collected letters and diaries. I want to like them and feel like I’m gaining invaluable insight into the creative process. I bought the first volume of Hemingway’s letters with giddy excitement. I felt like I won a small lottery when I found Ginsberg’s early diaries on a bargain table. Inevitably, I will be let down. One major reason is these books are often presented without context. What a ten-year-old Hemingway has to tell his grandmother doesn’t mean anything to me because I can’t make the connection to its significance or why it was chosen to be included in the collection.
All this is to say, I was hesitant to read David Sedaris’ new book, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. Sedaris is currently one of the funniest, sharpest, and most observant writers working. I was afraid reading a more personal version of his work would depreciate the charm of his other writings. Sedaris’ diaries, however, avoids these pitfalls because this new collection isn’t solely about him—it is the beginning of how he views the world. It chronicles the development of his inimitable voice. After years of avoiding books like this (I’ve successfully avoided buying Vonnegut’s letters), I’ve finally found a collected diary that does provide the insight I’ve been looking for.
An interesting aspect of Theft by Finding is how much it reads like an autobiography. We are introduced to a twenty-something Sedaris while he travels around the United States looking for work as a manual laborer. By the end of the book, he is a successful author living in Paris with three books (Barrel Fever, Naked, and Me Talk Pretty One Day) under his belt. In a typical autobiography or memoir, you have two speakers: the one everything happens to and the other sitting at the typewriter retelling the stories through a filter of retrospection. In Theft by Finding we’re getting diary entries, so we’re not getting that second speaker. The story feels closer and more immediate.
For the most part, they’re one-shot moments of observation from Sedaris, told on the background of his life. Since he makes entries every day (though not every day is printed here), we can infer times of importance, like when depression was getting the better of him. He talks about buying a copy of a newspaper photo of a suicide note. Then, months later, he writes a list for reasons to live. While on the surface these seem like funny eccentric things to do, the moment you begin to consider the implications of these entries, the more complex Sedaris becomes as a writer.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee isn’t a great novel. Setting the publishing controversy aside, it is a fun example of the artistic process. Essentially, the masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird was born out of the failure of Go Set a Watchman. Reading it on its merits as a novel is disappointing and underwhelming, but from the perspective of craft it is fascinating to piece together Lee’s evolution as a writer. The entries in Theft by Finding are not fully-formed essays. While they’re fun and entertaining on their own, they don’t go much beyond that. Singularly, they are fun moments, and in the same way you can track Harper Lee’s growth based on Go Set a Watchman you can see the beginnings of ideas that Sedaris will build into his signature essays.
For aspiring writers, this is something you could study, focusing in on the small steps Sedaris takes from the genesis of an idea to building it into something more complete. There is a run of entries where he talks about his French teacher who he later writes about in the titular essay in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Reading the diaries along with the essay gives us a peek into his process.
Looking at Theft by Finding as a macro work, you can piece together an unspoken autobiography; and on the micro level, you can start understanding the ways that Sedaris’ mind works. With that, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who either (a) hasn’t read David Sedaris or (b) doesn’t like him. I’d suggest reading any of his essay collections first and if you like those go ahead and pick up Theft by Finding. It is a wonderful companion piece to his other works. It doesn’t necessarily pull the curtain back, but you can feel Sedaris standing a little closer.