The books and authors that influenced David Sedaris

David Sedaris is already well known for drawing extensively on his life for his writing, but his latest book may be a his most personal yet. Theft by Finding, the first of two volumes, collects his private diaries from 1977 to 2002. The American humorist filled 153 notebooks over 40 years, jotting down anecdotes and observations from his life. These notes later became fodder for his bestselling collections, including Me Talk Pretty One Day and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls.

Below, Sedaris describes the books and writers that have shaped his life and career.

sedaris-theftbyfinding.png(Photo: Ingrid Christie) Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Abraham Lincoln

Biographies about famous people before they were famous

The earliest thing I remember reading were these things at the library at my elementary school. They were these biographies of famous people and they all had orange covers. I loved reading about, let's say, Abraham Lincoln, when he didn't know he was going to be famous. I knew it, but he didn't and I felt like I had something over him. Then I thought, maybe I'm just doing my chores and I'm going to be famous and I don't realize it. That could be the case. If it could happen to him, it could just as easily happen to me.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Kurt Vonnegut

Everything by Kurt Vonnegut

I read books because I had to read them, but the first book I ever read for pleasure was by Kurt Vonnegut. I was 20 years old. I do not remember which of his books it was, but I think I read all of them. I thought, "Oh right, you can do this... for fun." I was living in a small town in Oregon and I went and got a library card.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Vonnegut got me reading and started my relationship with books. At first I didn't know where to turn. I remember I read Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis because it was something that the better English class read in high school. Then I discovered contemporary fiction. I just remember the excitement that I felt when I got Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love from the library. The writing was so simple. Sort of like:

"I knocked on the door.
A woman came to the door.
'What do you want?' she asked.
I said, 'I'm here to see Nick.'
She said, 'Who's Nick? There's no Nick here.'
She brushed a fly off her face."

That's not from a Raymond Carver story, but the sentences were that simple. I remember thinking, "This is possible. I could do this. He's not using any big words. The sentences are not complex in any way. I think I know how to do this." You've got to start somewhere and I started off by imitating him.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Taking Care by Joy Williams

Taking Care by Joy Williams

Another strong stylist that I imitated for a while was a woman named Joy Williams who had a short story collection called Taking Care. She has such a singular voice. It hasn't really changed over the years. I remember she was talking about a girl having a fantasy about her beau and she said, "He was feeling fine, and fancy too." It was such music to me.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg The White Album by Joan Didion

The White Album by Joan Didion

I can look back through my diary and I can tell when I discovered Joan Didion because all of a sudden I'm writing like Joan Didion. I mean it's a very poor imitation, but there I am, writing like Joan Didion.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I've read every word Tobias Wolff has ever written. I have to be his biggest fan. Really, I would fight someone. If someone came in here and said "I'm his biggest fan," I would fight that person and I would win. Because I'm Tobias Wolff's biggest fan.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Richard Yates

The Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I read The Easter Parade or Revolutionary Road every year. Richard Yates is just a good word-for-word on-the-page writer. He couldn't be more different than someone like Joy Williams or Raymond Carver. His sentences are very complex, the stories are complicated and he was such a miserable man. I always like people who would hate me. I don't know what that's about. But Richard Yates would definitely hate me.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan

Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan

There's a woman named Susan Sheehan who wrote for the New Yorker for a number of years. She's written a number of nonfiction books, usually about things that a social worker might be interested in. She wrote a book called Is There No Place on Earth for Me? and it was about a young schizophrenic woman named Sylvia Frumkin who lived in the Bronx with her family. At the beginning of the book, she's naked in a fountain with makeup drawn on her face with magic marker. They put her in a mental hospital, put her on this medication and she works her way up to living in a halfway house. She gets a little apartment and stops taking her medication. Then she's naked dancing in a fountain and the whole thing starts over again.

When I was in junior high school, my mother said we had to get volunteer jobs. So I worked at a hospital called Dorothea Dix in North Carolina, which is a mental hospital and has since closed. But I've seen those wards and I've seen those people there locked away. Their families would never come to visit them. They'd throw a chair through the TV and get strapped to the bed. It's just grinding. The book is so good at showing the grinding wheel of mental illness. And the writing is so good. She doesn't turn somersaults in a sentence. She does her job and you're just devastated.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker stories, as read by Elaine Stritch

I like an audiobook. Quite often in an audiobook someone will read a story, especially the last line of a story, and I'll think, "That's not how it goes at all. Don't you know anything?" But Elaine Stritch, who's a Broadway actress, recorded Dorothy Parker stories and she understood those stories. There's nothing I would change. Not a thing in those recordings. They're masterful. They never released them on CD or digital. They're just on tapes and that's why I'll never get rid of my tape player.

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Photo credits: Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner/Getty Images, Kurt Vonnegut by Brad Barket/Getty Images and Dorothy Parker by the Evening Standard/Getty Images.

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