After keen debate at the Guardian’s books desk, this is our list of the very best factual writing, organised by category, and then by date. See how closely it matches yours and tell us what we’ve missedArtThe Shock of the New by Robert Hughes (1980)Hug…
‘Someone suggested that my new book is bedtime stories for children who drink’. The humorist David Sedaris talks to Hadley Freeman
The man routinely described as the best living humorist in America, David Sedaris, was recently enjoying a plate of marinated salmon over greens while signing books in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois when a fan decided he wanted more than the writer’s autograph. So he reached over and grabbed a handful of food off the Sedaris plate. Understandably, Sedaris was not best pleased. In fact, he was downright annoyed, which is not a common reaction from a writer who tends to regard the world in general with wide-eyed affection and his readers in particular with real fondness (“I always think it’s a good policy to like the people who like you,” he says with an almost straight face). It wasn’t the hygiene issue that bugged him. It wasn’t even the loss of the food, although he was a little upset about that (“I’d been looking forward to that salmon!”) – it was the fact that the man was trying to cheat.
“He just did it because he wanted to be written about,” recalls Sedaris, with the distaste of an artist discussing a plagiarist. “It was a gimmick, you know? So I ignored him because I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.” For a few moments, Sedaris’s face clouds at the memory. “But then a woman came up to me later after I read the story about the rabbit and the unicorn” – in Sedaris’s new collection, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk – “and she said, ‘You know it’s just wild that you read that story because I went to see my gynaecologist yesterday and he said my uterus is shaped like a unicorn.'” Sedaris leans back in his chair, clouds cleared and replaced with a smile of delight. “I mean, someone handed me a gold coin there.”
This tale, like all of Sedaris’s short stories and autobiographical essays, makes wider points beyond its classically Sedaris-esque world-righted-again conclusion. Just as “Go Carolina”, from Me Talk Pretty One Day, isn’t only about his school’s failed attempts to cure him of his lisp but also about his youthful attempts to conceal his homosexuality; and just as “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is partly about animal testing but really an exploration of the cruel smugness of the homeopathic set (“I’m sorry to say it, but if you have a terminal illness it’s nobody’s fault but your own”), so this story about Sedaris’s stolen dinner reveals why he is so popular – his delighted fascination in people’s eccentricities (the real, not the faked ones).
His past five collections of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), Holidays on Ice (1997) and Naked (1997) have all been bestsellers and have made celebrities out of not just Sedaris, but also the most frequent subjects of his essays: his siblings, his parents, and his boyfriend, Hugh. At a reading in London in March this year, Sedaris himself garnered plenty of happy applause, but it was Hugh who prompted gasps and camera phone flashes when Sedaris pointed him out in the audience, as though Mr Darcy had been suddenly summoned from the wings by Jane Austen.
The most unlikely subjects become hilarious in Sedaris’s hands, such as the time his father threw him out of the house when he realised he was gay. He was, however, too embarrassed to say the word “gay”, so the 22-year-old David assumed, with a shrug of fair-enough acceptance, that he was being ejected from the family home because of his fondness for his bong: “I guess I could have pinned him down, I just hadn’t seen the point. ‘Is it because I’m a failure? A drug addict? A sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason,'” he wrote in “Hejira”.
Yet his delight in eccentricities is often undercut by a sharpness and a darkness that at times can be startling in a writer who enjoys such mainstream success. In “The Smoking Section”, his essay about his eventual, reluctant, abandonment of smoking, he writes about how he was introduced to his favourite brand of cigarettes: “Just after she started chemotherapy, my mom sent me three cartons of Kool Milds. ‘They were on sale,’ she croaked. Dying or not, she should have known that I smoked Filter Kings, but then I looked at them and thought, Well, they ARE free.”
That his stories are telling most of all in their detail is also shown in the saga of his pilfered dinner – the simple fact that he was eating it at a book event: “I just found that if I do an evening book signing I don’t get back to my room until 2am, and then room service takes another 45 minutes,” he explains blithely over cupcakes in a New York coffee shop. “So now I just bring my dinner with me.” It is a rare author whose readers regularly queue until after midnight to get his autograph.
In America at least, Sedaris is in the tiny golden circle of writers – along with Stephen King and Woody Allen – who commands rock concert-sized audiences in venues such as Carnegie Hall, and whose fans shout their love for him when he walks down the street in New York. “And,” adds fellow humorist and American-abroad writer, Bill Bryson, “he really ought to be as famous here in Britain as he is there. He is the funniest and most original American writer since SJ Perleman.”
In fact, it was at least partly to escape fame that Sedaris fled America for Europe several years ago. “I mean, it’s nice to be told that people love you, but you can’t live like that and I can’t write about it. So I had to go.” To where people are rude to him? “Yeah,” he agrees with a smile. His first refuge of rudeness was of course France, but he now lives in Britain – in London and in a recently bought house in West Sussex. “But I don’t know what that means – West Sussex,” he says, rolling the words with pleasure on his tongue, his lingering North Carolina accent rendering them even more foreign-sounding. “If someone bought a place outside New York I would know what that said about them. So it’s weird not knowing what West Sussex says about us. But I also kinda like that.”
Sedaris was born in New York and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, along with his siblings, Lisa, Gretchen, Amy, Tiffany and Paul. Everyone in the family, he says, had a role, and his was “the drop out”; it was the other members of his family who were funny, particularly his sister Amy and his brother Paul, who, if warned not to wear shorts at a fancy restaurant, would turn up wearing a thong. “And if it embarrassed me, he would think it well worth it.”
Amy, also a successful comedian and writer, disagrees with David’s self-deprecation: “We’re all funny in different ways but he was the funniest, and I gravitated to him. If I had to learn about Julius Caesar for school, instead of just helping me memorise the whole ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ thing, he would create a talk show with all the characters for the play. He has always been an amazing storyteller, but he also makes you want to make him laugh because he is the most generous laugher you’ll ever meet.”
Sedaris knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of 25, when he read a collection of Bobbie Ann Mason stories; he attempted to fulfil his ambition by “writing a lot of bad Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver.”
It would take almost another decade before he found success. In the meantime, he kept himself busy dropping out of two colleges, going to art school (“I know I didn’t really want to be an artist, simply because I wasn’t jealous of the other students’ success”), developing a full-blown drug habit and finding “jobs that needed no skills”, such as cleaning people’s houses and working as an elf in a department store at Christmas.
He also wrote a diary and it was while he was working in his odd jobs that Ira Glass, a host on National Public Radio, happened to hear Sedaris reading from his diary in a club in 1992. Glass immediately hired him to read on the radio and suggested that he broadcast a longer piece about his life: Sedaris wrote about his time as an elf (published as SantaLand Diaries). Suddenly, he says, “I went from having 50 listeners to 50 million listeners.” He still contributes to NPR.
He insists that he never puts himself in strange and unfamiliar situations just for the sake of writing about them. He does, though, love those initial moments when one is in a new place, that “too short space of time when your eyes are keenly and profoundly open” – such as when he and Hugh moved to Tokyo for a few months to help him give up smoking (the dislocation of the move did help him break the habit, although trying to learn Japanese nearly drove him back to it).
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk takes him to a terrain almost as novel as Japan. As the title suggests, it is about animals as opposed to people, plus it is Sedaris’s first entirely fictional collection. Sort of. Ever since he was in his 20s, Sedaris, now 54, has carried around a notebook in which he records his observations. When asked how it felt to write a book without the help of these notebooks, he replies that it felt “kinda great! That said, there are some things in the stories that came . . . Like, one time this woman in airport security was just being horrible to me.” Again, his face darkens and then, just as quickly, clears again: “And I thought ‘I’m going to turn you into a rabbit.'”
Squirrel seeks Chipmunk is easily his darkest book, featuring baby lambs whose eyes get pecked out by crows and bears who are beaten and captured by circus owners. Yet it is still funny, particularly because it feels as though Sedaris is satirising the kind of sentimentalised anthropomorphism he often sends up in his essays (posters of animals wearing clothes are frequently cited as the nadir of humour).
“I’ve never been so unsure about the reaction to one of my books,” he says. “What I like is that you can’t categorise it. Someone suggested that it’s bedtime stories for children who drink, and I thought that was just great.”
But Sedaris has long been tough to categorise. While his early essays tend to be straighforwardedly funny, his later ones veer between comedy, darkness and something more moving. The member of his family who readers ask him about the most is his younger brother Paul (when I told friends I was interviewing Sedaris, four asked me to ask about Paul, and a fifth wanted to know what Hugh looks like). The essays about Paul are often extremely touching, such as “Baby Einstein”, in which his brother finds out his wife can’t have any more children.
Because of this ability to move between the hilarious and the heartrending, some critics have compared him to Mark Twain and James Thurber. Sedaris himself prefers to invoke early Whoopi Goldberg stand up routines and, in particular, the all-singing, all-dancing American TV show, Glee. “I love Glee. I cry all the time when I watch Glee because I don’t know if it’s satire or melodrama and that makes me feel like the writing is aware of itself, and that makes it OK to cry,” he says.
A somewhat trickier issue about the categorisation of Sedaris’s work arose in 2007 when the journalist Alex Heard wrote an article questioning whether Sedaris’s stories are as true as he claimed. The fact that he wrote the piece for the New Republic – a magazine which became infamous when one of its reporters, Stephen Glass, was caught fabricating news stories – was ironic enough. That Heard pointed out that a hospital Sedaris describes as “gothic” in one story is actually “Tuscan revival” tipped the whole venture into self-parody. Although the furore has since died down it still upsets Sedaris. “I just thought, what do people think this kind of writing is? I’m not a reporter. Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I’d do it more if I could get away with it,” he says, his voice going just that little bit higher.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which regularly publishes Sedaris, is far more sanguine. “As a magazine, it’s important to find a way to publish what David does, or what Thurber did, or what many humorist-memoirists have done, which is to tell the truth even while pushing against the stubborn facts. Our fact-checkers do check his pieces and David cooperates with that. Still, I think readers understand that they should read David Sedaris with a different understanding than the way they read hardcore investigative reporting.”.
“I just think,” Sedaris adds, “that the people who say: ‘That’s not true’ when someone tells a story at dinner are the people who didn’t get any laughs when they told their story.”
In any event, although he might confuse his architectural terms, he gets the important stuff right. Judging from the few instances his father Lou has appeared in the press, his son seems to have been captured him with little exaggeration. When Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked Lou whether he had ever expected to see his son playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”
There is one issue on which Sedaris has recently retracted: technology. Although he still doesn’t have a mobile phone, he recently did what he promised he’d never do: switch from his beloved typewriter to a computer. However, he conflates the words “email” and “internet” and he can’t quite figure out exactly what the white rectangular square in his hand is – “an iPod, no, it’s an iPad, no it’s an iPod”. At one point, he needs to get an address from his iSomething, but finds he can’t operate it (“Well, this is no good!”) and so reaches for his trusty, battered notebook instead. After all, when the authentic option is there in his pocket, there is no need for anything else.
The Cuban revolutionary was a prolific writer, and his works provide both personal and political insight
Che Guevara was killed on 9 October 1967, but new books by him are still appearing. He was a prolific writer and the Centre for Che Guevara Studies in Cuba continues to publish his articles and speeches.
But not all his writings were meant for publication. In 1950, he travelled alone in northern Argentina and wrote a diary of this bicycle trip on the hoof. These notes were found after his death by his father and published in Spanish, but not in English. They reveal his early concern for those who lived below the poverty line. Because he was a medical student travelling with hardly any money he asked for lodgings at hospitals and police stations, from where he observed this other Argentina.
The unrevised diaries of his first trip across Latin America were published in English as The Motorcycle Diaries after his death. In them we see an enthusiastic young man, full of mirth and a desire for adventure. The casual style of his notes has the immediacy and freshness of someone who is discovering a different world. But Che also discovered that what he had seen in Argentina was true of the rest of the continent. And when he had to spend time in Miami waiting for a ride home he saw how the gringo oppressing his continent lived. The contrast was astonishing and infuriating.
By 1953, now a doctor, he had left home again, this time never to return, since at the end of that trip he met Fidel Castro and joined his guerrilla force. They sailed from Mexico for Cuba in November 1956. The revolutionary war lasted two years, during which Che went from medical orderly to famed Comandante. The chronicle of this struggle was published during his lifetime as Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. In it he tells us for the first time of his belief that popular forces can win a war against an army without having to wait for the right conditions: the insurrection itself will create them. This moving account reveals his humanity, his sense of humour and his capacity for self-deprecation as he tells us that during an encounter with the enemy he ran away so fast he would never be able to replicate such a feat.
Once in power in Cuba Che wrote Guerrilla Warfare – a Manual following in the footsteps of Chairman Mao and Vietnam’s General Giap, made available free to guerrilla movements all over Latin America. Here Che expands on his theory that armed struggle could result in victory even against established, entrenched regimes armed with modern weaponry, and that guerrilla movements based in the jungles and mountains of a country could lead the people to freedom. It also gave detailed advice on tactics – and consequently it remains the preferred manual of guerrillas the world over to this day.
The African Dream is the diary of his stint in the Congo in 1965. His opening words are: “This is the story of a failure”. He was as critical of himself as he was of his African hosts, who were not ready to liberate themselves from foreign domination nor unite their extremely rich country and its different ethnicities. What makes his narrative riveting is that it can be argued – as Nelson Mandela has – that Che’s African adventure was not the unmitigated disaster he called it, because it was a lucid report of the prevailing conditions in that continent which informed Castro on how to assist African nations fighting for their independence.
The Bolivian Diary is a record of Che’s final campaign. He was dead 24 hours after his last entry. It consists of notes he intended to expand, but it was not to be. Since the Bolivian Diary fell into the hands of his captors, the CIA intended to use it as propaganda against Che in particular and Latin American guerrilla movements in general. But surprisingly, a member of the Bolivian government photocopied the diary and sent it to Cuba. Castro published it in several languages, thus pre-empting the CIA’s plans to doctor the text for its own purposes.
It is refreshing to read Che in his own words since so much has been written about him by his detractors. On the one hand there is an intimacy to his diaries –because he wrote them for himself – which reveals the person rather than the public persona. But on the other, when he is writing about politics and revolutions, we encounter a driven man who was a committed socialist even in his sleep.
Nicholas Lezard picks up some tips on gardening and revolution
On 27 March 1940 George Orwell, or Eric Blair if you prefer, found it was “still impossible to sow seeds”, but applied wood-ash to his onion bed, noted that the tadpoles were almost fully formed and beginning to wriggle their tails, and sold 20 eggs for 2s 10d. That is all. Didn’t he know there was a war on?
Of course, he knew perfectly well that there was; his concentration on the domestic is one indication that hostilities had not reached the point where one could think about little else. The war diaries begin in earnest detail on 28 May, with the Belgian capitulation and retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk.
Much in here will be familiar to those who have thoroughly read Orwell’s oeuvre. The hop-picking diary is reworked for sections of Down and Out in Paris and London; we have the embryo for The Road to Wigan Pier; the Morocco diary was reworked for his piece “Marrakech”; and the wartime diaries were purposefully written with an eye towards eventual publication.
But that doesn’t even begin to make the Diaries redundant, or otiose. In fact, not only do you not have to be an Orwell nut in order to enjoy them: they can be read by anyone who is interested in daily life between 1931 and 1949. There are gaps: the diaries between March 1936 and September 1938 were confiscated by the NKVD and are probably still gathering dust somewhere in their archives; and bomb damage, inter alia, did for the second half of the war. But this leaves us plenty to be going on with. Orwell was a meticulous observer of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, and there is something pleasing in the fact that he is aware not only of the larger picture (with a few hostages to fortune: in 1940, he wrote: “When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war, you think of St Petersburg in 1916.” Revolutionary? Well, perhaps, but only if you stretch the definition somewhat) but also of the minutiae of housekeeping. You can actually learn something about gardening, as well as keeping hens and goats; Orwell was a devoted and assiduous smallholder. One of the minor pleasures of the book are the reproductions of Orwell’s own sketches of the lathes used by carpenters in Morocco, the stirrups used by Arab horsemen and charcoal braziers – “the charcoal can be started with very little paper & wood & smoulders for hours”. Why is this so pleasing? I suppose it is because it makes Orwell, already one of the most human and intimate of writers, even more vivid for us. It is as if we are with him.
The prose is largely without ornamentation, and unrefined, but this doesn’t make it dull. There are occasional raw moments – “that bastard Chiappe is cold meat . . . this war is at any rate killing off a few fascists” – but considering what we are reading is, in effect, his notes and first drafts, the result is highly readable, and it becomes plain that Orwell couldn’t have written an inelegant or ineffective sentence if he tried. It’s also worth noting Peter Davison’s exemplary editorial work. Not only does he do a first-rate job of intercalating (a word I do not think I had hitherto come across, and for which I am very grateful) various diaries to produce a seamless chronological narrative, but he leaves in some of Orwell’s misspellings (there is something comforting in knowing that he wasn’t perfect), and annotates everything that needs to be annotated. If he errs on the side of inclusiveness, then so much the better. Foreign readers, after all, may not know that John Lewis is “a leading department store, organised as a staff partnership, which still thrives”, and the detail about the staff partnership is, in its way, a little nod to the kind of principles which Orwell favoured. And if there is something compulsive about Davison’s dedication, then this is entirely of a piece with the subject matter.
That we can now read these diaries is a cause for celebration. The extraordinary thing is that we had to wait so long for them in the first place. Well, here they are at last.
Exegesis, Dick’s ‘personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry’ to be issued in two volumes in 2011
A vast set of mostly unseen personal journals in which SF author Philip K Dick “took on the universe mano a mano” has been acquired by a US publisher.
The author of novels including the Hugo award-winning The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Minority Report, Dick died aged 53 in 1982. In 1974, recuperating from having had his wisdom teeth extracted and under the influence of sodium pentothal, the author had a series of visions in which a “pink light” beam of information transmitted directly into his consciousness; these “2-3-74” experiences would inform his writing for the rest of his life, and he would attempt to unravel them in the “Exegesis”.
Although a selection from the mostly handwritten journal was published in 1991 as In the Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, thousands of pages of Dick’s journal, including autobiographical material, philosophical speculation and analysis of his fiction, have not been published. The author’s daughters, Laura Leslie and Lisa Dick Hackett, said the publication of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick “has been a goal of ours for years”, and they were “thrilled” that US publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) shared the goal, acquiring North American rights in the previously unpublished two-volume Exegesis with plans to bring out the first book next autumn.
The journals, which HMH’s Bruce Nichols said served “as the foundation for ideas and themes that would appear throughout the work of this visionary author”, will be edited by critically-acclaimed author and Dick expert Jonathan Lethem, along with Pamela Jackson, author of a PhD on 2-3-74 and Dick’s Exegesis.
“The title he gave it, ‘Exegesis,’ alludes to the fact that what it really was was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry. It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense. It’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano a mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations,” Lethem told the New York Times . “It’s absolutely stultifying, it’s brilliant, it’s repetitive, it’s contradictory. It just might contain the secret of the universe.”
HMH also snapped up rights in 39 titles from Dick’s backlist, which it will publish in autumn 2011. Nichols said the author’s books were “as provocative and cutting-edge today as ever” and that “each generation wants to claim him as its own”.