At the Miami Book Fair over the weekend, I saw Dave Eggers talk. I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of his books – though I did read (and love) the original New Yorker piece that became his first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And I’ve been a big fan of his publishing enterprises – I was a charter subscriber to The Believer and I like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, especially the awesome lists. So I figured it would be interesting to hear him talk.
And it was – he was very engaging in describing the 826 Writing and Tutoring Centers, which offer writing help to schoolkids in several cities around the country (with a retail storefront offering, depending on the location, pirate supplies, superhero crimefighting tools, time travel supplies, etc.). He read some funny letters from the upcoming I Live Real Close To Where You Used to Live, kids’ letters to Michelle Obama and a sequel of sorts to the entertaining Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country, kids’ letters to President Obama. I really liked hearing him talk about Zeitoun, his most recent book that describes the experiences of a Syrian immigrant (and successful businessman, and husband and father) in New Orleans after Katrina, where he canoed around the city helping stranded people and dogs – until he was picked up by federal authorities who decided he was a terrorist.
The amazing thing, though, about Eggers – besides his seemingly infinite energy and capacity to juggle a multitude of disparate projects – is his positive attitude. I don’t mean he’s positive in a stupid, Pollyanna-ish way, of the variety promoted by self-help books like The Secret and ridiculed by detractors like Barbara Ehrenreich in “Brightsided.” Eggers deals with some tough issues – the early deaths of his parents, or the plight of a young man from the Sudan, or Zeitoun. To name a couple. But he manages to do it without anger or bitterness, and to be positive without being pious. This is a remarkable skill and I sure wish we had more of it around. Snark is fun – I adore The Daily Show and all. But relentless negativity is a drag, especially of the Eeyore variety – the “woe is me, everything was so much better in the old days, texting/digital publishing/television/the internet are leading to the end of civilization” variety. I get it, change is unsettling and there’s some stuff about the old days you miss. Me, too. But when people are wallowing in nostalgia or bitching about change, I always cringe – because the old days were not always great, at least not for a lot of people, and I think a lot of the new stuff is pretty great, whether it’s being able to communicate and share information of all sorts on Facebook or the ability to read and publish blogs from all kinds of people all over the place or to hear directly from Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman or Nancy Pearl on Twitter. On the whole, I like the world we’re entering – and even if I didn’t, I would be free to opt out and stick with paper (after all, there is still plenty of it still around and even plenty still being produced). What you get by being bitter and angry all the time is … being bitter and angry all the time. Eggers has obviously figured out that’s pointless — or at least not very rewarding. I, for one, appreciate that – so much that, at the Book Fair, I resubscribed to The Believer.