As much as I love reading, I think I love hearing stories read out loud even more. In college, I used to go to at least one or two author readings a week. Hearing writers read their stories was, at times, a transcendent experience. That’s something I remembered late last week when I had the opportunity to hear David Sedaris read in Ann Arbor. (Thanks for the ticket, Mary and Rob!) Ostensibly, Sedaris was there to read from his latest collection, “When You Are Engulfed In Flames,” but the minute he took the podium, he announced, “I’m not reading from that book. I’m incredibly sick of it.” Which proved to be a boon for the audience because it meant Sedaris instead read three unpublished essays and a series of excerpts from his diary, which he has kept for decades and from which he gleans the nuts and bolts of his stories. The event was held in a huge auditorium and Sedaris was just a tiny speck in the distance but still, that transcendent feeling was present.
If you’re a Sedaris fan, you’ll know that he’s been moving imperceptibly toward more serious essays, growing a little more reflective on life and its circumstances while still throwing in more than a few choice punchlines. He started off with a story about two trainrides he took years apart during which he met two very different men. The story was a wonderful meditation on the idea of love at first sight, on those flashes of attraction that take place once or twice in a lifetime but leave a lasting mark. It was a beautiful story and I’ll admit, I got a little choked up toward the end. He also read a piece about undecided voters that you can find here in the latest issue of The New Yorker. His last number was an absolutely uproarious story about being on a book tour and the horrifying awkwardness of pushing a shopping cart filled with nothing but condoms and strawberries with his brother-in-law at a Costco.
I was thrilled to see that Sedaris is taking on the Mandy Patinkin-style of stage show, which means basically that he’s thrown convention out the window and just decided to do weird stuff. (Mandy Patinkin’s concerts used to include moments when you could “come on stage and present me with gifts” and “come on stage and touch me.” They were pretty damn funny.) Anyway, Sedaris gives away gifts, he claims, to high school students who attend his readings because “they could be home getting drunk but instead they’ve come to see a middle aged man read out loud.” He also likes to take informal polls while signing books and thoroughly enjoys getting asked outrageous questions. One woman, he said, asked her to name her donkey. He blurted out, “Stephanie!” and then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening worrying he’d decided too quickly. Sedaris says he enjoys these minute-long meetings with his fans because, the older he’s gotten, he’s realized that one-minute is pretty much the ideal amount of time to spend with people. I can respect that.
If you have a chance to see Sedaris, you have to promise me you'll go. It's a great night out, it will remind you of how wonderful live readings can actually be and, if you have a donkey in need of naming, well, David's your man.