Theft By Finding – Diaries (1977-2002)
by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company

Would David Sedaris have published Theft by Finding if he had not sold more than 10 million books worldwide and had a devoted fan base who regularly pack his readings and live performances?

The American writer, humourist, memoirist and “cultural anthropologist” is a phenomenon in the book and comedy worlds, known for his irreverent prose and self-deprecating public persona.

He is the bestselling author of books such as Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013), Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (2010), When You are Engulfed in Flames (2008) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004). He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine and BBC Radio 4. Nevertheless, to publish a series of personal diary entries (this is volume one, there is more to come) that take in everything from what he ate to comments on the weather, his bank balance and his mother’s birthday is brave indeed.

At first, this seems to be the kind of book you would leave on a house guest’s night table, something they could flick through for a little snicker before going to sleep. Sedaris admits s as much: “I don’t really expect anyone to read this from start to finish. It seems more like the sort of thing you might dip in and out of, like someone else’s yearbook or a collection of books.”

Yet it bears reading cover to cover, especially if you’ve wondered what led to Sedaris’ success.

Sedaris’ diary entries are particularly droll; it’s what he leaves out – or what he reveals yet doesn’t analyse – that gets the laughs. His life has been the colourful journey of a struggling artist. And his musings on these experiences reward those who appreciate his witty realism.

Each entry seems a stepping stone to his success and personal happiness.

In 1977, Sedaris is attempting to negoti­ate the pitfalls of living hand to mouth in Raleigh, North Carolina, taking drugs to forget how bad his rented accommodation is. Before long, he is a student in Chicago (odd jobs and bizarre work colleagues), then he becomes a creative-writing teacher (while still taking odd jobs) and falls in love while also starting to engage with publishers and other creative organisations (and doing more of those odd jobs).

Entertaining encounters with family and friends are interspersed with mini reports of racism, domestic abuse, sexism and homophobia, as well as Sedaris’ own addictions.

December 8, 1979, Raleigh: “I started work back at the breakfast house today and learned that my gas company credit rating has slipped to a B. Was ill all day yesterday. When the meth catches up to you, you find yourself paying for it. When on a spree, I’m convinced I can smoke three packs of cigarettes, not eat and run all over town with no consequences.”

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July 3, 1982, Raleigh: “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard it on the radio tonight.”

The reader sees what he saw, hears what he heard,gets to know his colleagues and friends, and cringes at his financial situation.

July 29, 1985, Chicago: “Tiffany [one of Sedaris’ sisters] has moved in with a piano player named Mike. They’re living in Queens and selling cocaine to make money. Before this she worked at Macy’s for a Belgian chocolate company. I think hers is what you call a checkered career.”

February 17, 1982, Raleigh: “Yesterday morning, I poured boiling water onto my left foot. I was making coffee and looking out the window at the guy in the next-door apart­ment, who was wearing a cowboy hat. Of course I stopped pouring once I’d burned myself. As the skin peeled off, I wondered when this string of bad luck might end.”

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Amid the rawness of his addictions and his inability to hold down a regular job and pay the rent or phone bills, Sedaris comes across as a likeable character; honest, fair, observant, non-judgmental, close to his family (he is one of six siblings).

He writes without indulging his emotions, using a sparse, laconic prose. He doesn’t complain about having to go from working in a cheap café to hitch­hiking to painting houses with misogynists.

He finds luck, loses it, goes broke, gets a break selling some of his art­works and then, once again, can’t pay the rent. He loses his mother to cancer, a sister to suicide and still manages to give up the drink. We know every last detail because Sedaris has been fiercely loyal to his diary, and continues to write an entry every day.

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How did he become a literary star?

In the early 1990s, Sedaris took a job as an elf in SantaLand, at Macy’s Department Store in New York, an experience that led to essay The SantaLand Diaries. This was picked up by National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and the rest is history.

It seems unlikely Sedaris wrote these entries with a view to having them published, so the fact they are not as hilarious as much of his prose is understandable. Nevertheless, he manages to say a lot by saying little and tells a quick story with down-to-earth humour meant, presumably, for himself and himself alone.