I have a theory: For every person there is one book that changes everything, a novel or memoir or poetry collection that blows their world wide open. One book to which we can point and be able to say, “After that everything was different.” For me that book is David Sedaris’s 2017 collection, “Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002).”
Good books give us fresh perspectives, new ways of understanding the world’s contradictions and entire languages through which to filter them. The best books, though, are the ones that change not just how we speak and think about the world but what of our lives we deem worthy of critical attention.
I began “Theft by Finding” on a muggy July afternoon this summer. It was a two-week loan from the Boston Public Library, with a faded green clover sticker on the spine indicating it was from the new books section. I’d never read any of Sedaris’s other works. I picked it up on a whim because I liked the cover art — big red block letters in a pleasing font.
My lack of purpose or expectation made it especially thrilling to have found this book, a manifestation of the kind of life-altering luck that one imagines but rarely experiences in such vivid clarity. “Theft by Finding” is something very special, perhaps because Sedaris himself is so extraordinary.
It’s not his fame that makes the book so remarkable, but instead his dedication to seeing the world as it is; ridiculous, pain-filled, joyful, incomprehensibly bizarre. “Half the people I know have dead animals in their freezers: reptiles, birds, mammals. Is that normal?” Sedaris ponders. Or: “Today the teacher told us that a ripe Camembert should have the same consistency as a human eyebrow.” His dutiful recordings of strangers are just as engaging: “Man ordering at Butera’s deli/prepared-foods counter: “Hey, give me one of them chickens that spins around.”
Sedaris’s sharp sense of irony anchors the entries, whose subjects range from his career as a professional mover to the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He is constantly ready for a tender takedown of nearly everything. “While listening to a country music station, we heard a talk / song narrated by our flag,” Sedaris writes. “I flew proudly at Iwo Jima and the blustering deserts of Kuwait, anywhere freedom is threatened, you will find me.”
Even his literary success is addressed with this keen, sincere logic of life’s incongruity. “Roger Donald called from Little Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal,” Sedaris says. “To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.”
I am enthralled with Sedaris’s eye for the strange, and for how he manages to juxtapose his own trials with the oddities he comes across. “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink,” he writes. Nothing gets a pass; the whole lot of life is presented raw, spread-eagle for his dutiful examination. After reading “Theft by Finding,” the world seems that way to me, too: unimaginably strange, teeming with things to notice and write about.
It is all here. It always was. I just had to look.