Vignettes and fragments
It’s September 1977. A young David Sedaris has dropped out of college and is hitchhiking across rural America. He’s working menial jobs, quietly drinking too much and flirting with methamphetamine. But it is another habit that will be the making of him: every night he writes in a diary, “solid walls of words, and every last one of them bullshit”.
Four decades, a half-dozen bestselling books and eight million diary words later, Sedaris, America’s pre-eminent humorist, has produced Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One, a curated collection of diary entries covering 1977 to 2002, and a chronicle of his haphazard trajectory from itinerant housepainter to literary star.
This 500-page-plus volume, the first of two planned releases, tracks Sedaris, who is 60, through his forlorn 20s, transformative 30s and into his prosperous 40s.
Theft by Finding is not a diary in the conventional, confessional sense; it is not a book of dark secrets. But it couldn’t be, not for an author who has spent his career inviting us to laugh at the parts of the human experience we try hardest to ignore: our fickle desires, our gross desires, the fact one day we will all die. Theft by Finding is similarly unweighted by moral superiority or squeamishness.
What Sedaris provides instead are a series of artfully drawn comic vignettes and scavenged fragments: “remarkable events I have observed … bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me”. There are bons mots, jokes, recipes, anecdotes, a multiplicity of lists (T-shirt slogans, odd names from the phone book, reasons to keep living) and a gloriously gruesome account of the dietary habits of French spiders. Sedaris routinely reads such snippets on his book tours, as little bursts of folly: March 18, 1986: One of the people I voted for this morning was named Lee Botts. Her campaign slogan is HER BOTTOM LINE IS CLEAN WATER. Someone tampered with the sign she had in front of the school, and now it read LEE BOTTS, HER BOTTOM IS CLEAN.
“If nothing else,” Sedaris reflects, “a diary teaches you what you’re interested in.” This book is a testament to his lifelong fascination with eccentricity, lunacy and vulgarity. Such as on February 1, 1981: “We went to Lance’s for dinner last night and I learned that he keeps a dead rattlesnake in his freezer. He found it on the highway somewhere … Half the people I know have dead animals in their freezers: reptiles, birds, mammals. Is that normal?”
Sedaris’s fascination with the grotesque divides readers, but as Oscar Wilde so perfectly claimed: “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never.”
En masse, Sedaris’s relentless cleverness starts to grate, to feel performative (April 16, 1981: “I modelled for Susan’s drawing class this afternoon and had an eerie feeling that everyone was staring at me.”)
But he doesn’t expect Theft by Finding to be read from end to end: “It seems more like the sort of thing you might dip in and out of, like someone of jokes.”
This glib admonition diminishes the book’s impact. Theft by Finding is comic but it is not frivolous. There are few writers who are as able (and willing) to empathetically portray the American underclass as Sedaris. And while he largely ignores major world events and geopolitics, the politics of the everyday is here, with all of its monstrous hilarity. Sedaris is an eavesdropper, not a commentator.
Sedaris also forgets that one of the pleasures of reading a diary is watching — omnisciently — as its author steps into their own future. The many readers who love Sedaris’s work know there are narratives to be found (a grand love story, for starters), and they will go looking for them. New readers will find them, too, but will experience them as its author did, rather than with the oracular delight that comes with knowing the plot.
When read from beginning to end, the first half of this book has the most momentum: the lean and desperate years of piecemeal work, overdue bills and scrounged dinners; the years when he is writing with no expectation that anyone will ever read a word. In the later entries, once success settles in and Sedaris falls into “the luxury pit”, the book loses something, its electricity.
Sedaris knows that the price of his success is distance from its source: “I’m supposed to be enjoying this new apartment, but I can’t help but feel guilty for the fancy oven and brand- else’s yearbook or a collection new washer and dryer. We sit around like people in a magazine, but it’s not the sort of magazine I’d ever subscribe to.”
Theft by Finding is a heavily edited enterprise, which is inevitable when your source material runs to 156 volumes. Sedaris is open that he rewrote entries that were “clunky and uninviting”, and skimmed over his bleakest years of drug-fuelled self-indulgence (“It’s like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really”).
This book is, unapologetically, his version of history and himself: An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive. On any given day I am all these things and more: stupid, cheerful, misanthropic, cruel, narrow-minded, open, petty — the list goes on.
How Sedaris does appear is how he has always appeared in print: earnest, his cynicism tempered by naivety, his selfishness tempered by self-reproach and his morbid curiosity left to run riot.
It was Sedaris’s diary that first captured the American imagination when his account of working as a department store Christmas elf was broadcast on public radio. And, as Theft by Finding attests, it is his diary that has provided the raw material for the self-deprecating essays that built his career.
Many of Sedaris’s popular early works are here in zygote form. There’s a strange magic in watching how he encounters and configures these inspirations, particularly when you know what is to become of them, and of him. is a writer and critic.
Author David Sedaris unapologetically provides his version of history and himself