“Theft by Finding” offers behind-the-scenes look into author’s life

"Theft by Finding" by David Sedaris
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
"Theft by Finding" by David Sedaris
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

By Zach Landau | A&E Editor

It’s difficult to review a diary if only for the simple fact that there is no accepted baseline of quality for something that straddles both the personal and the public. Criticizing the turmoil of yet another teenager and their struggle to fit in is one thing, but as soon as those emotions turn out to be real and sincerely held, then you come off as insensitive. To put it simply, there’s a staggering gulf between critiquing Katniss Everdeen and Anne Frank, a difference that warrants careful consideration.

This begs the question, then, of why people read diaries, a question I kept turning over in my head while working through Theft by Finding. In his latest book, David Sedaris offers a close and candid look at just under 30 years of his life. The diary entries that chronicle his time as a traveling laborer, a son, a student and, of course, a blooming writer do little to construct any sort of narrative. Rather, Theft by Finding lays out a life told in snippets, offering readers a look at the bits and pieces that the writer uses to manufacture his anecdotes.

It’s these bits and pieces that usually add texture to Sedaris’s other work. The odd detail or sordid confession make for great beats in a longer essay. Taken by themselves, however, these details are often uninteresting. Taken as a whole, they are outright depressing, frequently devolving into a series of unfortunate events. To try and read the first couple years without pause is a miserable experience, so disheartening as to make you thank every privilege you’ve had in your life.

That was exactly my experience going into the collection. While initially hoping to see how one of the best writers of our time became so talented, I instead gave up trying to read the whole book after slogging through those aforementioned early years, figuring that flipping to a random page and starting anew would be easier to manage.

It should be no surprise then to confess that I did not read all of Theft by Finding. By the author’s own admission, it is not a book that is meant to be read cover to cover, and I quickly took that advice to heart. Rather, dipping in and out of Sedaris’s life, taking in moments as passing memories instead of a cohesive whole, makes the collection much more palatable, like a dash of seasoning compared to inhaling a whole bottle of oregano.

While the topics within Theft by Finding change moderately, usually between years, a certain sense of melancholy hangs over the collection. Whether talking about hitchhiking to fruit farms or recalling family drama, Sedaris finds the sweet spot between depressing and funny and pulls the reader into his history and illustrates how the banal can offer a voyeuristic pleasure.

Voyeurism is the name of the game here, as, like gossipping with a friend, this collection offers just enough detail to entice readers to pry a little bit more and a little more after that. The pleasure, whether it be schadenfreude or just the perverse joy in watching another life, is what makes Theft by Finding fascinating. Nothing new or particularly interesting is revealed within its pages; the book is not some tell-all about the life of a former A-list celebrity. It’s a book about someone who is seemingly as normal as most of us, just delivered in a more personal and uncut manner.

Indeed, the collection often feels like reading bits of Sedaris’s other work (obviously). While some entries offer only a sentence or two, others are their own self-contained stories. Perhaps it’s meeting a potential employer or enduring a particularly bad day. Whatever the case, these entries do offer some insight into the type of thinking that goes into Sedaris’s work, as details or events that may be passed over by any other person make for a unique peculiarity for the reader.

However, not every entry is worth the attention, which is fine. Obviously, a person’s day-to-day life is really not all that interesting, and as said, Theft by Finding does not require a deep dive to appreciate. Again, it is the gossipping metaphor that aptly describes the work, a moment to hear bits of someone’s life while remaining comfortably out of its reach.

That is, I guess, the whole point of reading Theft by Finding, and indeed most diaries. Whatever benefits or insights one may gain from reading about the life of another person seem arbitrary and subjective. Instead, the chance to look at and become intimate with another person with as little filter as possible, to momentarily peer into the life of another with the knowledge that at any point you can safely return to your own, is why I would recommend Sedaris’s work. Theft by Finding is about as close to perfect as one can hope for an experience like that.