Last night at Benaroya Hall, I introduced David Sedaris for his annual reading. What follows is my prepared text.
Hello! My name is Paul Constant and I’m a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books. Before we begin, I want you to share a message with you from the very bottom of my heart. Here it is: Turn off your fucking cell phones.
I also want to let you know about an amazing opportunity. Last January, David Sedaris did a weeklong series of workshop performances at the Broadway Performance Hall. He was editing and refining pieces from his magnificent diary collection, Theft By Finding. I think that those performances were all that got me through the week surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration; without them I would have stayed at home in my bathrobe and cultivated a thriving blackhead farm on my nose. The readings were funny and informal and they provided a fantastic window into his process.
And just as those sold-out shows meant a lot to Seattle, apparently Seattle meant a lot to David Sedaris, because he’s coming back this January for another weeklong stand at the Broadway Performance Hall. He’ll be workshopping his upcoming book of essays, Calypso, which means you’ll get to experience his book before everyone else. Every night of the week will include a reading and an intimate question and answer session, but no two nights will include the same pieces, which means you could attend more than once and never see the same show twice. I highly recommend that you attend.
Okay! Now it’s time to get tonight’s reading going.
Introductions are a funny thing. You already know why you’re here, so you don’t need me to tell you who David Sedaris is. If you’ve read his books before, you know that he’s knife-in-the-ribs funny and slyly compassionate. If you’ve seen him read before, you know that he’s literally a world-class reader of his own work, by which I mean there’s a very good chance that you are right now about to watch the best reading in the world tonight.
When called on to do introductions, a lot of people simply visit Wikipedia and copy down a list of accomplishments and titles. They then repeat those names back to the audience with all the life-affirming energy and unbridled enthusiasm of a hostage video. But I’ve done a lot of introductions in my time, and I’m here to tell you a secret: Wikipedia sucks as an introduction resource. In fact, you can learn more about a person by reading the edits to their Wikipedia page.
In case you have an active social life and didn’t know, allow me to explain: it’s possible to read every single edit that’s ever been made to any Wikipedia entry, and to see the conversations between the thousands of volunteer editors who oversee changes to the site. I spent hours poring over Sedaris’s page as research for this introduction.
The first noteworthy edit to David Sedaris’s Wikipedia page was in July of 2005, and it was written by a user named Chrisjamescox. Mr. Cox noted that he “Removed ‘satirist’ [from the entry and] replaced with ‘humorist’.” He went on to editorialize: “He is not a satirist! He doesn't comment with disparaging humor ('humour' in Brit. Eng.) on current events and trends. He writes about his family.”
Later that same year, a user named Moncrief asked, “How is [Sedaris] a Chicagoan?? He lives in France and is from North Carolina. If he's a ‘Chicagoan’ somehow, it should be explained in the article.” Someone else would later add, “he’s not jewish. he’s half greek/half protestant.” The next year saw a number of edits from a Wikipedia user named “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”
A bunch of notable additions came in 2007. One user wrote proudly that he “Added mention of [Sedaris’s] drug use.” May of 2007 saw additions of the words “expatriate” and “homosexual” to the page.
So additions are crucial, but you can also tell a lot from the deletions. “Removed the part about [Sedaris] speaking at the University of Arizona as it's not notable in any way,” one user wrote in 2011. (My apologies to any University of Arizona alums we may have here tonight.) User Jamend8 in 2012 writes that he “Removed France as Sedaris' ‘country of origin.’ He was born in the U.S.” An editor named Frosty protested a change by claiming that “I understand that this might seem strange, but the article claims [Sedaris] is known locally as Pig Pen.” MelonKelon responded, “That may be true. It's a nickname of sorts. But it is not a notable name, nor is it an alias he writes under.”
Word choice in Wikipedia articles is very important. Lee Bailey commented with disdain in 2007 that “a ‘humorous essayist’ is a humorist.” SergioGiorgiani writes that Sedaris’s speech impediment wasn’t “cured at all. He specifically mentions how his speech therapist left without having accomplished anything but making David avoid the letter S.” Someone else writes with palpable exasperation, “I changed Infoboxes: The guy was a writer and comedian, not a scientist.”
It goes on. And on. There are something like 1500 individual edits to the page since it was created in 2003. Things get nasty in the Great Edit War of 2009. “I don't know anything about David Sedaris, but it seems odd that [user] 184.108.40.206 would delete a well-cited reference. I suspect the user has an axe to grind with that source,” someone butts in. User 220.127.116.11 retorts, “There is no ‘axe to grind.’ This is more accurate. Leave it alone.” Another editor complains about being “wrongly blocked” from editing the page, and someone else concludes, “This is it's [sic] what accurate. Stop changing it to nonsense.”
What emerges from the edits is a kind of erasure portrait of Sedaris, a biography constructed from deletions and errors. It doesn’t capture the way he can condense a perfect agonizing moment down to its most honest core in just a few sentences. It doesn’t explain how he can whiplash readers between laughter and tears and make it look easy. But it does demonstrate the passion his fans feel for him, their willingness to fight for hours in a weird internet forum about every tiny detail of his life. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to introduce the man behind the Wikipedia page, David Sedaris.