My first exposure to the writing of David Sedaris came fifteen years ago, at a reading he gave in Seattle. I couldn't remember laughing at anything before quite so hard as I laughed at the stories of the author and his fellow French-learners struggling for a grasp on the language. I fought hardest for oxygen when he got to the part about his classmates, a veritable United Nations of a group, straining in this non-native language of theirs to discuss various holidays. One particular line has always stuck with me, after a Moroccan student demands an explanation of Easter:
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and... oh, shit."
She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
"He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two... morsels of... lumber."
The scene eventually ended up in print in "Jesus Shaves," a story in Sedaris' third collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day. You can read it free online in a selection of three of his pieces rounded up by Esquire. Sedaris' observational humor does tend to come out in full force on holidays (see also his reading of the Saint Nicholas-themed story "Six to Eight Black Men" on Dutch television above), and indeed the holidays provided him the material that first launched him into the mainstream.
When Ira Glass, the soon-to-be mastermind of This American Life, happened to hear him reading his diary aloud at a Chicago club, Glass knew he simply had to put this man on the radio. This led up to the big break of a National Public Radio broadcast of "The Santaland Diaries," Sedaris' rich account of a season spent as a Macy's elf. You can still hear This American Life's full broadcast of it on the show's site.
True Sedarians, of course, know him for not just his inimitably askew perspective on the holidays, but for his accounts of life in New York, Paris (the reason he enrolled in those French classes in the first place), Normandy, London, the English countryside, and growing up amid his large Greek-American family. Many of Sedaris' stories -- 20 in fact -- have been collected at the web site, The Electric Typewriter, giving you an overview of Sedaris' world: his time in the elfin trenches, his rare moments of ease among siblings and parents, his futile father-mandated guitar lessons, his less futile language lessons, his relinquishment of his signature smoking habit (the easy indulgence of which took him, so he'd said at that Seattle reading, to France in the first place). Among the collected stories, you will find:
For the complete list, visit: 20 Great Essays and Short Stories by David Sedaris. And, just to be clear, you can read these stories, for free, online.
Note: If you would like to download a free audiobook narrated by David Sedaris, you might want to check out Audible's 30 Day Free Trial. We have details on the program here. If you click this link, you will see the books narrated by Sedaris. If one intrigues, click on the "Learn how to get this Free" link next to each book.
Be His Guest: David Sedaris at Home in Rural West Sussex, England
David Sedaris Reads You a Story By Miranda July
David Sedaris and Ian Falconer Introduce “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk”
David Sedaris Sings the Oscar Mayer Theme Song in the Voice of Billie Holiday
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Every time I've taught George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay on misleading, smudgy writing, “Politics and the English Language," to a group of undergraduates, we've delighted in pointing out the number of times Orwell violates his own rules—indulges some form of vague, “pretentious” diction, slips into unnecessary passive voice, etc. It’s a petty exercise, and Orwell himself provides an escape clause for his list of rules for writing clear English: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” But it has made us all feel slightly better for having our writing crutches pushed out from under us.
Orwell’s essay, writes the L.A. Times’ Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Michael Hiltzik, “stands as the finest deconstruction of slovenly writing since Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Where Twain’s essay takes on a pretentious academic establishment that unthinkingly elevates bad writing, “Orwell makes the connection between degraded language and political deceit (at both ends of the political spectrum).” With this concise description, Hiltzik begins his list of Orwell’s five greatest essays, each one a bulwark against some form of empty political language, and the often brutal effects of its “pure wind.”
One specific example of the latter comes next on Hiltzak’s list (actually a series he has published over the month) in Orwell’s 1949 essay on Gandhi. The piece clearly names the abuses of the imperial British occupiers of India, even as it struggles against the canonization of Gandhi the man, concluding equivocally that “his character was extraordinarily a mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad.” Orwell is less ambivalent in Hiltzak’s third choice, the spiky 1946 defense of English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, whose behavior after his capture during the Second World War understandably baffled and incensed the British public. The last two essays on the list, “You and the Atomic Bomb” from 1945 and the early “A Hanging," published in 1931, round out Orwell's pre- and post-war writing as a polemicist and clear-sighted political writer of conviction. Find all five essays free online at the links below. And find some of Orwell's greatest works in our collection of Free eBooks.
1. "Politics and the English Language"
2. "Reflections on Gandhi"
3. "In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse"
4. "You and the Atomic Bomb"
5. "A Hanging"
George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources
The Only Known Footage of George Orwell (Circa 1921)
George Orwell and Douglas Adams Explain How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness