Literary wanderings: Humor holds David Sedaris accountable in ‘The Best of Me’

A cartoon image of David Sedaris is in front of a green square and a collage of book pages.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

The following article contains discussions of mental illness and suicide

Humor is a distinctly underappreciated talent in the writing world — both in that it is not used nearly enough, and that it is exceedingly difficult to do well. The ability to make readers laugh out loud is one of the most admirable skills a writer can master. 

Late last year, I realized that I wasn’t laughing out loud very often — at least not while reading. And so began my search for funny books. 

In such a search, one can’t help but come across David Sedaris. A recognized author and comedian, Sedaris has established a career by bringing humor to the pages of The New Yorker and to his many books. Beyond chasing quick laughs, his writing is biting and powerful. His pieces often delve into challenging topics or heartfelt moments, and yet still never fail to make the reader laugh out loud on nearly every page. He is a master of his craft.

“The Best of Me,” as the name implies, steals from all of Sedaris’ previous collections, gathering together his best essays, personal narratives and fiction into a single book. It bursts with a cacophony of voices, ranging from Sedaris’ own personal narratives to a fictional conversation between a baboon and a cat at a hair salon.

I started reading it early Christmas morning while the rest of the family was still asleep. Two chapters in, and after presents had been opened, I told my family that I had to read one out loud. That is one of the beautiful things about funny books — they demand to be shared.

While I typically read all the books that I review, this time I chose to listen to the audiobook. This decision, I believe, greatly enhanced the experience. Sedaris’ distinctly high-pitched voice, mixed with his library of humorous accents and a knack for timing, makes the experience of hearing “The Best of Me” all the better. Sedaris is funny on the page, but he’s even funnier in his delivery. 

But like any good book, it also left me with questions. 

In particular, it made me wonder about the relational implications of his relentlessly honest personal narratives. “The Best of Me” is full of family stories, and no one is spared from the limelight. 

He is certainly not lacking in material. The Sedarises — David, his mother, father, and five siblings — are a boisterous group. 

In the pages of his book, he explores everything from sultry North Carolina summers at the neighborhood swimming pool, his sister’s suicide and the time his father ran around the house in his underwear while yelling at David and his sister to stop singing so he could watch “the game.” Sedaris makes it clear that his Dad considered him a ‘lemon’ — directionless, unathletic, unpromising — when he was growing up. His siblings’ paths diverge and converge over the years, they fall in and out of each other‘s lives, make mistakes. 

In these windows into his family, he seems to leave out nothing. Readers are fully brought into the ever-evolving world of their lives together. 

This left me with a question: Is this ok?

It is a question I have come up against time and time again with any work of personal narrative or memoir. How does the writer tell their story, which inevitably intimately involves others, without reducing those closest to them to mere characters, without completely stripping them of their ability to speak for themselves? 

At times, it can almost feel like Sedaris is a traitor in their midst. He writes at one point that, while having a conversation with one of his sisters in the car, she finishes her story by saying “you cannot use this in one of your books.”

Based on the stories, however, it also seems that he has retained a good relationship with his family. They all share a beach house on the coast, and he even goes on trips to Japan with his sisters. 

While Sedaris is bitingly critical of his father and frequently pokes fun at his siblings, he is even more open about his own comical blunders and inexplicable idiosyncrasies. The answer, it seems, is empathy. He is able to turn the same critical and humorous eye on himself. 

This gives his work a different character — rather than exploitative, it is honest and endearing. Some scenes still feel especially bold, but if you read the entire collection, you will see that they do not come from a place of malice or ill-intent, but rather from a heart filled with laughter, care and, often, self-deprecating humor. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He is still on the search for more funny books.

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