Doorstopper of the Month: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

I’ve read six of David Sedaris’s humorous collections of personal essays. A college friend first recommended him to me in 2011, and I started with When You Are Engulfed in Flames – which I still think is his best book, though Me Talk Pretty One Day is also very good. Sedaris can be riotously funny, and witty and bittersweet the rest of the time. From Raleigh, North Carolina, he has lived in New York, London, Paris, Normandy and Tokyo. Many of his essays stem from minor incidents in his travels. His kooky Greek-American family members and longsuffering partner, Hugh Hamrick, are his stock characters, and his pieces delight in cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and human obstinacy versus openheartedness.

When I heard Sedaris was publishing his selected diaries, I wasn’t sure I’d read them. I knew many of his essays grow out of episodes recorded in the diary, so would the entries end up seeming redundant? I’d pretty much convinced myself that I was going to give Theft by Finding a miss – until I won a proof copy in a Goodreads giveaway. This is the first volume, covering 1977 to 2002; a second volume from 2003 onwards is planned.

What I most liked about this book is the sense you get of the sweep of the author’s life: from living in his North Carolina hometown and doing odd construction jobs, hitchhiking and taking drugs to producing plays, going on book tours and jetting between Paris and New York City, via an interlude in Chicago (where he attended art school and taught writing). Major world events occasionally make it in – the Three Mile Island disaster, Princess Diana’s death, the Bush/Gore election, 9/11 – but for the most part this is about daily nonevents. It’s a bit of a shock to come across a serious moment, like his mother’s sudden death in 1991.

One thing that remains constant is Sedaris’s fascination with people’s quirks. For instance, nearly every night for nine years he visited his local IHOP for coffee, cigarettes and people-watching. He seems to meet an inordinately large number of homeless, hard-up and crazy types; perhaps, thanks to his own years-long penury (October 6, 1981: “I’ve paid my rent and my phone bill, leaving me with 43 cents”) and addictions (he didn’t quit alcohol and marijuana until 1999), he feels a certain connection with down-and-outs.

By the last few years of the diary, though, he’s having dinners with Mavis Gallant, Susan Sontag, and Merchant & Ivory. This isn’t obnoxious name-dropping, though; I appreciated how Sedaris maintains a kind of bemused surprise about his success rather than developing a feeling of entitlement. He acts almost guilty about his wealth and multiple properties (“I’ve fallen deeper into the luxury pit”). Time spent abroad keeps him humble about his linguistic abilities and gives him a healthy measure of doubt about the American lifestyle; I especially liked his reaction to a Missouri Walmart.

The problem with the book, though, is that the early entries are really quite dull. Things picked up a bit by the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I realized I was actually finding the entries laugh-out-loud funny like I expect from Sedaris. The book as a whole is too long and inclusive; Simon Cowell would surely call it indulgent. I tried to imagine what would have resulted if an outsider had reduced the complete diaries to a one-volume selection. A cast list and photographs of Sedaris and his family over the years would also be helpful; I’d be interested to know if any supplementary material was added to the final product that did not appear in my proof.

Ultimately I think this is only for the most die-hard of Sedaris fans. I will certainly read the second volume as I expect it to be funnier and better written overall. But if – as appears to be the case from the marketing slogans in my proof – the publishers are hoping this will introduce Sedaris to new readers, I think they’ll be let down. If you’ve not encountered him before, I suggest picking up Me Talk Pretty One Day or trying one of his radio programs.


Some favorite passages:

October 26, 1985; Chicago: In the park I bought dope. There was a bench nearby, so I sat down for a while and took in the perfect fall day. Then I came home and carved the word failure into a pumpkin.

October 5, 1992; New York: The new Pakistani cashier at the Grand Union is named Dollop.

October 5, 1997; New York: Making it worse, I had to sit through another endless preview for Titanic. Who do they think is going to see that movie?

June 18, 1999; Paris: Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.

October 3, 1999; Paris: I said to the clerk, in French, “Hello. Sometimes my clothes are wrinkled. I bought a machine anti-wrinkle, and now I search a table. Have you such a table?” The fellow said, “An ironing board?” “Exactly!”

My rating:


Have you read (or heard) anything by David Sedaris? Are you a fan?

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12 thoughts on “Doorstopper of the Month: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

  1. I just got this book for my birthday! I love Sedaris but, like you, have been feeling a little unenthusiastic about reading his diaries. Those excerpts are pretty good, though, and I think I’ll give it a stab soon. I’ll let you know if there are any pictures!

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  2. I love the ironing board quote! I have read Me Talk Pretty and that seemed enough for me, but I’m funny with humour (ha ha) and he felt a bit robust sometimes. My best friend loves him and sees him when he does shows and signings in London, and he’s apparently lovely to talk to after them.

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    1. He’s the sort of author you could read bits and pieces by. A few from When You Are Engulfed and Let’s Explore Diabetes, maybe. I do wonder if I’d enjoy seeing him live. He’s doing three shows at the Royal Albert this autumn.

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  3. I’ve only ever read Me Talk Pretty One Day. I liked it, but not enough to go on to one of his other books. A lot of people seem to love him, though, which makes me think I should give him another try… But I think it’s more that I prefer fiction to memoir or humorous essays.

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    1. Humour is so subjective; if you didn’t think Me Talk Pretty was really funny, then I’d agree there’s probably no point in you trying his other books. He’s also well known for his radio and stand-up work. Maybe that would be more accessible?

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  4. I “discovered” him via the audio version of his stint as a holiday elf; I loved it. Since then, I’ve found that I most appreciate him in scattered doses. Then I am truly struck by that feeling I had with the elf story in the beginning (now,it seems sadder to me than it did at the time,but I know that was always there in it, too). So when I fell on the interview he did about these diaries for TNYTReview, I thought maybe I’d skip it but just listened to the beginning – and then listened straight through – finding the same sense of sorrow/delight that he seems to capture so well. If I do pick up the Diaries, I think I’ll read through them very slowly. Love the snippets you shared here!

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    1. His holiday book is actually my least favourite of his; I think he’s gotten much better since then. I’ve only heard his voice once or twice on radio and it surprised me (not sure what I was expecting!).

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      1. In terms of shaping his stories, I agree with you that his presentation has improved substantially.Or was it just the content which you didn’t enjoy? He mentioned in the interview the differences he noticed in rereading his own journals, too, the improvements he recognised. But, also, if you read rather than heard the elf story, I think much of its charm (?) rests in its delivery. I can see where his voice might surprise!

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