David Sedaris

October 29, 2008 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 7 Comments

Trish of Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? and I went to see David Sedaris read from When You are Engulfed in Flames.  Naturally, he was quite funny and we really enjoyed the show, which was sold out.  After his reading, he graciously answered questions from the audience.  Having seen this, if I ever became a famous author I’m not sure I’d extend the same courtesy to my fans, which is proof that Sedaris has a heart of gold.  You won’t believe what the man puts up with.

A woman a few feet down in our row asked a question.  She was a big brassy blonde, and she puffed up like a pigeon when it was her turn to talk.  She went on for at least 60 seconds about how she’d seen him read before, had postponed surgery to see him again, had given him a book recommendation, and wanted to know if he had read the book.  Can you even imagine the pure unmitigated chutzpah?  He replied that he had not, and then explained that people are always giving him bits of papers, so that after a show he can’t remember what they’re all for.  The woman looked utterly, utterly thrilled with herself and his response.  We were ashamed to be sitting near her.

Now I have to tell you that the book was The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I haven’t read it either, though it’s on my list, and I did read The Blue Flower, which was quite good.  But I do know the book by reputation.  For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would recommend a ladies’ book club-type book to David Sedaris, much less one with a bleak ending.  What put it into her head that he would like it?  Much less that she should feel entitled to hassle him about it in front of 1600 people three years later?  Mon dieu.

To make matters worse, one of the next questioners proved to be a local eccentric, an older lady in a very odd hat.  It was a sort of brocade jester hat and it wasn’t terribly flattering.  She said she had a radio show on which she had been reading chapters of Sedaris’s books for some time, and she wanted to know if it bothered him.  Not that she was asking permission, just whether it bothered him – as though that had been her goal.  He said it didn’t bother him, but it would if she pretended she had written them.

A man stood up and thanked Sedaris “for sharing your life with us.”  Isn’t that the sort of thing someone would say in a toast at a wedding or an anniversary party?  To someone they actually knew well?  We thought it was terribly presumptuous, on the one hand to act as though this artist is a personal friend, and on the other to assume that what we read accurately reflects his inner life.  Embarrassing!

The questions that weren’t asked were the obvious ones, to my mind.  When can we (eagerly) anticipate your next book?  Have you ever considered making a film?  Would you ever collaborate with your sister on a book?  Can you warn us ahead of time of the sorts of questions that are really rude?

“The Solitary Vice: Against Reading”

October 29, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

I would have read The Solitary Vice: Against Reading at some point simply because it’s a book about books.  The subtitle, however, struck me like a thrown gauntlet.  I had to know what a published author has against books.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  Indeed, we’ve seen contrarian books that purport to be against reading before:  Ruined by Reading, Everything Bad is Good for You, and How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, among others.  Mikita Brottman takes this another step by comparing reading to – gasp – masturbation.  This is emphasized by the cover photograph, and a pretty hilarious illustration in the first chapter.

Brottman describes herself from childhood through college as a complete loser who wanted to do nothing but read novels and watch horror films.  She also has a soft spot for true crime.  I confess I read this with disquiet and an uncomfortable yet strong sense of recognition.  Yep, that was me.  I do tend to disagree with her thesis that reading ruins people’s lives, though, possibly because I consider myself a news junkie first and non-fiction reader second.  I usually only read fiction as required by my book group, when it wins awards, or when it’s a new offering by one of a handful of favorite writers*.

The Solitary Vice is full of penetrating insight into why we read, and why we read particular things.  Brottman describes funny obsessive reading habits, like collecting, insisting on maintaining books in pristine condition, and keeping elaborate lists.  She offers incisive commentary on the appeal of true crime.  The chapter in defense of indulging in lowbrow culture, though, wanders off into a discussion of why we care about celebrities, and it doesn’t touch much on books. 

Brottman lambastes those who read certain “required” books to impress others rather than sticking to what they truly enjoy.  I’ve never understood this attitude particularly, because whenever I read a list of “overrated” books I typically find that I’ve enjoyed them very much.  Brottman singles out Don Quixote, War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Brothers Karamazov – all books I thought were absolutely terrific.  I use those “required” lists to point me to great books I might otherwise miss.

One of the great features of The Solitary Vice is that it has a lengthy Works Cited section in the back.  If you’re like me, you comb through these for books to add to your list – precisely in the way Brottman finds so amusing.  This is one of the reasons we know Brottman really isn’t against reading – she’s clearly never shaken her own passionate reading habits, so how could she expect us to?

I’ll go so far as to say that The Solitary Vice is a must-read.  It grabbed my attention, challenged some of my assumptions, gave me food for thought in areas that I thought I had pretty well covered, and entertained me with the inimitable sketches that illustrate it.

* Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Tom Robbins, Tana French (please Lord), Lisa Lutz, D. Daniel Judson, Steve Martin, Nick Hornby.  Okay, double handful.

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