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David Sedaris tells all in a book that is, literally, a lifetime in the making.
For forty years, David Sedaris has kept a diary in which he records everything that captures his attention-overheard comments, salacious gossip, soap opera plot twists, secrets confided by total strangers. These observations are the source code for his finest work, and through them he has honed his cunning, surprising sentences.
Now, Sedaris shares his private writings with the world. Theft by Finding, the first of two volumes, is the story of how a drug-abusing dropout with a weakness for the International House of Pancakes and a chronic inability to hold down a real job became one of the funniest people on the planet.
Written with a sharp eye and ear for the bizarre, the beautiful, and the uncomfortable, and with a generosity of spirit that even a misanthropic sense of humor can’t fully disguise, Theft By Finding proves that Sedaris is one of our great modern observers. It’s a potent reminder that when you’re as perceptive and curious as Sedaris, there’s no such thing as a boring day.
Occasionally in this book I have changed people’s names or slightly altered their physical descriptions. In some cases I’ve changed a name because the person in the preceding entry was also a Jim or a Mary, and I wanted to avoid confusion. (How is it that I have so many Steves in my life and only one Thelma?)
I’ve rewritten things when they were unclear or, as was more often the case in the early years, when the writing was clunky and uninviting.
Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries, I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it. Given the exchange rate, the bill amounted to around $8.15, which, as my mother would have said, “Ain’t nothing.” A few days later I met with my friend Pam in London. The subject of windfalls came up, and when I mentioned the money she asked if I’d spent it.
“Well, of course,” I said.
“In the U.K., if you discover something of value and keep it, that’s theft by finding,” she told me. “You’re supposed to investigate whether it was lost or stolen, though in this case—five pounds—of course you’re fine.”
Theft by Finding. It was, I thought, the perfect title for this book. When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different. I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change. Other people’s feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let’s talk!
If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking, If only I was as civic-minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward!
After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case—knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?*
What I prefer recording at the end—or, more recently, at the start—of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbor of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone—all jokes are—but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling.
Another thing I noticed while going through my forty years of diaries is that many of the dates are wrong. For instance, there might be three October 1, 1982s. This was most likely because I didn’t know what day it was. Time tends to melt and run together when you don’t have a job. In that prelaptop era, you had to consult a newspaper or calendar to find out if it was Wednesday the eighth or Thursday the ninth. This involved getting up, so more often than not, I’d just stay put and guess. Quite often I’d even get the month wrong.
It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day—around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I’ll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio. I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull, I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.
Starting around 1979 I began numbering my entries. It’s a habit I still maintain.
December 28, 2016
One. It’s only December and already…
Two. Dad called on my birthday. “I’m trying to visualize where you’re living,” he said. “Are there a lot of power lines out where you are?”
Three. Hugh stormed out of the kitchen yesterday, leaving me, Candy, Amy, and Ingrid, who was in the middle of a story about her mother.
Four. I ran into Michael at the Waitrose…
Five. Carrie Fisher died yesterday…
Six. Hugh just came in and told me…
This is what cavemen did before paragraphs were invented, and I’m not sure why I don’t just indent or hit the space bar twice. Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly. The following morning I’ll review what I jotted down and look for the most meaningful moment in the previous day, the one in which I felt truly present. It could have been seeing an old friend, or just as likely it could have been watching a stranger eat a sandwich with his eyes closed. (That happened recently, and was riveting.)
Every so often, I’ll record something that might entertain or enlighten someone, and those are the bits I set aside. I thought I’d eventually put them in a book of diary entries, but when the printout reached a height of eight inches, I decided that maybe two volumes—the second of which will cover the years 2003 to 2017—would make more sense. It’s worth mentioning that this is my edit. Of the roughly eight million words handwritten or typed into my diary since September 5, 1977, I’m including only a small fraction. 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 and on.
A different edit, no doubt a more precise one, would have involved handing my diary over to someone else, but that is something I can’t imagine doing, unless, perhaps, that person is a journalist. (They never get beyond the third page, which they usually call “the middle,” as in “I’d hoped to finish this before our interview but am only in the middle!”)
That said, 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 jokes.
It wasn’t easy revisiting what are now 156 volumes of my diary. I broke the job up—a month or two per day—but after reading about me, I’d have to spend the rest of the day being me. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything quite so exhausting. Hugh would be in the next room and hear me shout things like “Will you just shut up!” and “Who cares about the goddamn pocket square!”
“Who are you talking to?” he’d ask.
“Me in 2001,” I’d answer.
By then I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The early years, 1977 to 1983, were the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand back then. The letters were small and, fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages—solid walls of words, and every last one of them complete bullshit. I’ve included very little of that time in this book. It’s like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really.
The diary lightened up when I moved to Chicago, partly because I was in a big city but mainly because I felt so much better about myself. I’d finally done what I’d talked about doing for so many years: I’d left the town I grew up in. I’d gone back to college and actually graduated. There was all the more reason to feel good when, in the fall of 1990, I moved to New York. I was only writing at night back then, either smashed or getting there. You’d think I’d have addressed my drinking, at least in the privacy of my diary, but it’s rarely mentioned. To type that word—alcoholic—would have made it real, so I never recounted the talking-tos I got from Hugh and certain helpful people in my family.
Similarly, it took me a while in the 1970s to write the word gay. “Oh, please,” I said out loud to my twenty-year-old self while reading my earliest diaries. “Who do you think you’re kidding?”
This project made evident all the phases I’ve gone through over the years, and how intensely. Oh, the ink that was spilled over finding the correct phone number of someone who’d obviously—and for good reason—given me a fake one, over losing weight, over my French homework. Later I’d throw myself into catching flies and feeding them to spiders, and all this leads me to wonder, What’s next? Judging from my past it could be anything: collecting hair, crossbreeding rodents in my basement—who knows?
I was also struck while rereading my diaries by the number of people I knew in 1980 whom I’m still close with now. It’s so hard to predict which friends will last and which will fade away. Quite often I’d move and lose half the contacts in my address book, people I thought would be with me forever. It’s not that we outgrew one another. They just couldn’t be bothered to put a stamp on a letter. Or I couldn’t. Of course it’s easier now with email.
It was interesting to read back through a diary and come upon someone who would wind up being very important, who would drop out of nowhere and change the direction of my life: Hugh, Jim McManus, Meryl Vladimer, Geoff Kloske, Ira Glass, Andy Ward. I’d have thought the initial meetings would be momentous, that I’d recognize salvation when it presented itself—“There you are!”—but more often than not, each of them was just someone I shook hands with, then sat down later at my desk thinking, What was that person’s name again? Hugh was different. Him I remembered. With the others, though, it’s sort of heartening. You never know whose hand you’re going to shake.
Then there were those who died: my mother, my sister Tiffany, Don Congdon, the lovely David Rakoff. I’d reread the entries that featured these people and curse myself for not including more. Why did I not transcribe their every word? And shouldn’t I get cracking so that when friends and family members die in the future I’ll have something greater and more comforting to reflect upon? That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.
*I do not think The Wire was overrated.
September 5, 1977
Ronnie and I got a ride from Lonnie and Tammy, who are on their way to Mount Shasta. The state fair is in town, and Sherri Lewis is performing. We slept out in the open next to the American River.
September 8, 1977
Mount Hood, Oregon
Sidetracked en route to Yakima. We met a couple named Pops and Jeannie who will pick us up at six tomorrow morning and take us to an orchard. Pops, who calls himself a “fruit tramp,” guessed Ronnie and I might make $300 between the two of us before the season is over.
We’re sleeping tonight on a golf course. I feel the way I always feel before starting a new job—nervous.
September 11, 1977
I wonder how long three minutes is? My soft-boiled eggs are on the woodstove, tumbling in their little pan. It’s Sunday, our day off. Raining. Ronnie and I are living in a wood cabin with a soft brass bed, a fridge, four chairs, a table, and lots of logs. Sometimes a cat comes in and I feed him (her?) hot dogs. My socks are drying, the floor needs sweeping, and the couple in the trailer next door are eating. This morning I saw the wife trudging to the outhouse in her bathrobe.
We’re working for a man named Norm. His friends call him Peewee. It’s cold enough outside to see my breath. Acorns are falling on the roof.
October 20, 1977
Vancouver, British Columbia
After a hotel for $8.50 a night, Ronnie and I found an apartment that’s $30 a week for the both of us. I worry about money, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. I smoked my first cigarette. It’s embarrassing, but you do get a buzz off it. I did, anyway, on Davie Street.
October 25, 1977
I now own a black jacket and a pair of brown heavy wool trousers that come up past my navel and button at the ankle. Canadian Army pants? When it comes to clothes, all anyone has to say is “That looks good,” and I’ll buy it. So I was walking down the street in my new uniform, very happy, when a guy looked me over and said to his friend, “Who’s the faggot?”
Then I was just an idiot with stupid clothes on. Ronnie and I leave tomorrow. I’ll be glad to go.
The dryers in Canada cost 10 cents for fifteen minutes.
October 26, 1977
At the Beehive Café one egg is 25 cents. It’s $2 for an egg at Denny’s.
Yesterday we were picked up by two fishermen, Ed and Reilly. Then we got a ride with Mark, who let us sleep in his trailer. At six this morning, he bounded into the living room naked and said, “Let’s go!”
He had just returned from his high school reunion. He was in the band.
October 27, 1977
Some asshole stopped last night and pointed at Ronnie, saying, “I’ll take the girl.”
October 29, 1977
Ronnie and I are at the Broadway Hotel, a cheap and depressing place. Scary. There is a real poor and a funky poor. This is the real kind. The lobby is full of dying old people, cripples, and a girl who ate hamburger after hamburger, pouring ketchup on every bite. Toilets are down the hall. Our carpet has vomit on it. We have a torn-up kitchen chair and a nasty bed. The second floor smells like doughnuts, but ours smells like puke and piss. Our fellow guests, winos and the down-on-their-luck, are the ones our parents always warned us about.
November 6, 1977
San Francisco, California
I called home and talked to Mom. It was so nice to hear her voice, I didn’t want to hang up. She said Paul was hurt that I hadn’t written to him, but I just did a few days ago.
November 9, 1977
We finally made it to Bakersfield. The countryside here is flat and scrubby. A guy named Doug gave us a nice long ride and told us about his cousin who got stabbed.
Last night under the stars in a pasture in our sleeping bags, I poured my guts out and said things I was afraid to admit even to myself. And you know, it felt good and not as hopeless as I thought. All that had been inside for so long.
November 11, 1977
Last night we crawled into the dry, sandy riverbed next to the Texaco station across the road from the Liberty Bell Lounge and slept. It is warm, and we are waiting for Al, the Apache guy who rescued us from the Hoover Dam. Ronnie and I were there for hours. At one point a patrolman stopped and told us we were in a bad place to get a ride. Duh.
It got dark. Camping meant climbing sharp rocks to more sharp rocks. By the Coke machine at the Mead Lake lookout point, we ate a can of kidney beans. I can’t recall the brand. No change, so no Coke. Then Al and Phil stopped. Their car was packed, but Al said he couldn’t bear to see anyone stranded like that. They spent the night at the B&R Motel but promised to fetch us this morning and carry us on to Phoenix.
Someone said a few days ago, “Whatever you do, don’t get stuck in Kingman,” but Phil says, “Don’t believe everything you hear or fifty percent of what you see.”
November 12, 1977
There are a lot of older hitchhikers in Tucson. At the urinal I met Jimmy Buck. He offered us a ride to Texas—six hundred miles—if we’d help him unload a truckful of grapes. We did and are on our way.
November 16, 1977
Civilization means not waiting five hours for a ride. Round Rock is civilized, Austin is too, but I’m not sure about Temple.
Right after I wrote that, a Scientologist in a Rambler drove up, a mural painter from Dallas. A good guy. Ronnie left her guitar in his car. So long, guitar. The Scientologist played tapes. We smoked pot. In Austin we were picked up by an alcoholic. He’s been arrested for drunk driving four times. “SOL,” he said. “Shit out of luck.” He said he wasn’t drunk now but would definitely be arrested if they gave him a Breathalyzer.
November 21, 1977
Ronnie and I went our separate ways in Cullowhee. She’s heading to Raleigh, and I’m underneath an interstate bridge waiting for the rain to calm down. Several of the drivers that stopped today took off laughing just as I reached their cars looking grateful and relieved. There are a lot of dead birds down here. I feel itchy.
November 23, 1977
I got here yesterday afternoon. Then Todd and I each took three hits of sugar cube acid. Too much. It was a real bad trip, like torture, enough to turn someone into a Christian. I’ve been up for two days.
Coming here by myself from Cullowhee, I had my first bad ride—a thirty-five-year-old with flag decals on the windshield of his pickup truck. Ray T., his name was. He picked me up in Knoxville and said he’d take me forty miles. First he spent three hours playing pool and drinking beer. I waited outside in a rocking chair and smoked a joint. I should have left, but the highway was deserted. No cars, and I was twenty miles from the interstate.
After Ray T. left the bar, he was weaving and slurring his words. I figured I’d get out once we hit a busy road because you really don’t want to be in a car with a drunk. His conversation was hard to follow, and he stopped every mile or so to pee or light a cigarette. When he saw two girls hitchhiking, he picked them up and gave them a ride to their door. Then he had a cheeseburger. It started to rain. When we hit the interstate, I said, “You can just let me out here.”
He said no, he couldn’t let me hitchhike in this weather. He said I had to spend the night with him. He was drunk and yelling, “Ray T. always gets what he wants, and this is what I want.”
I asked him again to let me out, and he said no. Then he started asking me questions. “When was the last time you jacked off? Sometimes does it get hard just thinking about it?” He told me to move close to him, and when I said no he grabbed me and yanked me over and stuck his hand down my pants. I was afraid. It was late, raining, and he was speeding and drunk. If I’d hit him or tried to get away, we could have had an accident. I was scared and humiliated. When he pulled off onto a smaller road, I opened the door and jumped out. He stopped and I grabbed my wet knapsack from the back and ran.
It was cold, and I heard him come after me. Then he got back in his truck, and when I saw it heading in my direction, I hid. After he drove off, I turned and ran onto the interstate and waved my arms. In a few minutes three assholes stopped and took me to Cincinnati. They were from Illinois and threw cans out the window. One of them said that niggers should still be slaves. I thought, Oh, boy. What a day.
December 1, 1977
I’m in a seafood place drinking coffee. I need to get to Raleigh, but so far rides are sparse. I have a joint and $3. I remember being appalled when David Larson hitchhiked to North Carolina with $1 in his pocket, and now here I am. I started the day with a ceramic pig but abandoned it after it got to be a drag to carry.
December 15, 1977
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I found a job today, just like I told myself I would. Three dollars an hour washing dishes at the Carolina Coffee Shop.
January 13, 1978
1. I’m cold.
2. I’m bored.
3. I spilled a full glass of ginger ale on the floor and have nothing to clean it up with.
4. I went to the grocery store and spent $5.37 on total crap.
5. I made beans and franks on my hot plate and it was just a mushy mess.
6. I want to be in school.
7. My radio is suffering from me falling asleep on it.
February 23, 1978
I am totally frustrated and can’t relieve it. Nothing to go back to, and nothing to look forward to.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Last night Dad caught me off guard by asking me to leave and not come back. We can’t begin to reason with each other. I said awful things, and he said he wanted to smother me. I cried and am glad. Gretchen says the three best times to smoke a cigarette are:
1. after food
2. after sex
3. after crying
PRAISE FOR THEFT BY FINDING:
"Starve and Struggle. Feast. Bloat. These are the three stages that all artists - with some variation - go through in their careers...So it's encouraging to read 25 years of David Sedaris's diaries, and not just because he manages to defeat Bloat. It's helpful to see that a voice as original, hilarious and sometimes as infuriating as his was put through the same Struggle and Starve meat grinder that most of us go through...No one escapes Bloat, but many survive it. Maybe not with the grace, whining, hilarity and eye-rolling that Sedaris does. But through all 25 years of "Theft by Finding" - of soap opera addictions and spider feeding, family kookiness and language lessons - Sedaris's developing voice is the lifeline that pulls him through the murk."
—Patton Oswalt, New York Times Book Review
"If it's hard to be funny, it's an astounding feat to stay funny--wildly, wickedly, ingeniously so--for more than twenty years. Yet David Sedaris has somehow pulled it off, in exhilarating essays that zero in on the absurd and the poignant with eviscerating wit and radiant humanity....Fans will no doubt delight in the entries that will turn into Sedaris's most beloved essays...We're treated to a portrait of the artist as a young man, albeit one with an old and singular soul."
—Fiona Maazel, O, The Oprah Magazine
"A standout... Whether he's in an IHOP in Raleigh or his apartment in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, his eye for the absurd and the vulgar is infallible and his deadpan prose style inimitable...Here, the relatively artless diary entries, short and long, sequenced and non sequitur, add up to something we've never gotten before--a big, juicy narrative arc. It comprises 25 years of an essentially heartwarming success story, any potential ickiness kept in check by Sedaris's judicious minimalism."
—Marion Winik, Newsday
"Mesmerizing... Delightful... Sedaris describes the world around him... the vast and splendid array of human life that can be observed at IHOP, or the vagaries of fruit picking... Reading Theft by Finding is like watching a favorite play from behind the scenes, in the company of a friend who can identify what is absurd and heartbreaking and human about every person on stage."
—Annalisa Quinn, NPR
"Sedaris, a master of incisive and comic cultural criticism, is about to get more personal than ever...Theft by Finding reveals intimate details of this literary luminary's life and mind--all told with his singular sense of humor."
"Sedaris fans will thrill to this opportunity to poke around in the writer's personal diaries, which he has faithfully kept for four decades and used as raw material for his hilarious nonfiction as well as his performances."
—Paul S. Makishima, Boston Globe
"If you've had the good fortune of seeing Sedaris on tour, you've probably heard him read from one of his snarky and hilariously solipsistic diary entries. Finally, they're collected in one place for the first time."
- "Randomly open to any page of Theft by Finding and you'll find a gem... Sedaris's gift is to make you stop and think one moment and laugh out loud the next."—Rob Merrill, Associated Press
"Here, in these as-it-happened accounts and jottings, is a rich chunk of the mother lode from which David Sedaris has mined his personal essays and performances. The extracts in Theft by Finding cover what may be called the disconsolate IHOP years, when he was a college dropout, rootless casual worker and aspiring artist, and those during which he became a celebrity.... The appeal of these diary entries lies in their spareness and in Sedaris's boundless relish for the absurdity of life.... The Sedaris of these diaries is, above all, a connoisseur of annoying things and of bothersome and downright dreadful people."
—Katherine A. Powers, Washington Post
- "This is Sedaris, who can be wickedly funny as well as deliciously insightful about modern mores - so the nuggets are big and shiny and well worth panning for... His eccentric existence is eminently enthralling."—David Holahan, USA Today
"The thrill of Sedaris's nonfiction lies in the absurd details of his memories, burnished with...polish and comic timing...Now we'll finally have access to the raw material -- fragments of the writer's personal diaries that you might recognize from the banter in his prolific and hilarious live readings."
—Boris Kachka, New York
"Of course you're going to buy, read, laugh, ponder, read. He is one of our best comic writers, one of our most thought-provoking, and--who knew?--a dedicated diarist."
—John Timpane, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Sedaris's diaries are the wellspring for his cuttingly funny autobiographical essays, and he now presents a mesmerizing volume of deftly edited passages...Sedaris is caustically witty about his bad habits and artistic floundering...A candid, socially incisive, and sharply amusing chronicle of the evolution of an arresting comedic artist."
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Raw glimpses of the humorist's personal life as he clambered from starving artist to household name...Though the mood is usually light, the book is also a more serious look into his travails as an artist and person...A surprisingly poignant portrait of the artist as a young to middle-aged man."
—Kirkus (Starred Review)
- "A David Sedaris book is always a welcome addition to any personal library - his hilarity, his self-deprecation, his compassion for (and amusement with) the human condition, and his clear joy at making his readers laugh out loud are all what make a David Sedaris book great."—E. Ce Miller, Bustle
"Peak Sedaris...A real journey, and catnip for his most loyal fans."
—Jinnie Lee and Maura M. Lynch, WMagazine.com
"For those curious about the mind of a comic genius, this is a great place to start."
—Melissa Kravitz, amNewYork
- "Filled with rich and unfailingly sharp observations...There are moments of sadness...but this is not a sad book; instead, it's a gloriously weird one...This is a diary that shows us how Sedaris's powers of observation and his intense investment in his own perspective have enriched his life and, by extension, ours."—Kelly Blewett, BookPage
- "Scintillating... Sedaris is a latter-day Charlie Chaplin: droll, put-upon but not innocent, and besieged by all sorts of obstreperous or menacing folks... Sedaris's storytelling, even in diary jottings, is consistently well-crafted and hilarious."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Wildly entertaining....This book is flat-out memerizing."
—Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
- "A summer in which there is a new Sedaris book is the very definition of a good summer."—Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
- "Diary entries shouldn't be this good, but considering Sedaris's output, it's not surprising that this collection is a worthy addition to his name...Like much of Sedaris's deceivingly simple prose, the enjoyment comes not from its very basic conceit but its sharp observations and bone-dry humor."—Caitlin PenzeyMoog, A.V. Club
- "The Sedaris diaries are laced with snark, wit and trenchant observations, personal and public."—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"As brilliant and hilarious as anything Sedaris has previously published."
—Zack Ruskin, SF Weekly
- On Sale
- May 30, 2017
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Little, Brown and Company
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