The real work is brick by brick.
As anyone will tell you, Dave Eggers is a nice person. More than that, he’s a thoroughly good person, to a point that is almost irritating. He’s a person like you and me, only better. The equation goes something like this: immaculate writing combined with an utterly charming and light-handed approach to publishing and life in general, combined with a circle of very cool friends indeed, combined with social responsibility, and even more than that, political engagement… You get the idea: Dave Eggers is not your average author of a handful of inspired books.
Born in 1970, Eggers grew up in a perfectly normal suburb near Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with a degree in journalism and an interest in painting. Things changed drastically, however, when both his parents died of cancer soon after college, and at 21 he assumed guardianship over his younger brother Toph. After moving to San Francisco, where he’s been based ever since, Eggers began working as a freelance graphic designer, and founded Might magazine , one of the quintessential publications documenting 90s Generation X angst and sensibility. Eggers chronicled this period in his autobiographic debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , published in 2000: a ferocious, frequently hilarious monument to self-consciousness and self-doubt with its looping, reflexive narrative recalling the unspoken preoccupations of its readership, a neurotic generation thirsting for a new literary voice. Widely praised and even short-listed for the renowned Pulitzer Prize, Eggers’ memoir presaged a tidal shift in the American literary scene: Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, et al suddenly felt a little dusty and, well, old, to be replaced by Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer. With You Shall Know Our Velocity! , Eggers confirmed his seemingly effortless talent for portraying a generation continuously on the run without ever really arriving.
Yet Eggers, unlike most of his contemporaries, has a love for words far beyond putting his own pen to paper. In 1998, he established the independent publishing house McSweeney’s , which was initially aimed at single-handedly reviving the virtually dead genre of the short story with a lovingly-made quarterly collection of stories by mostly young and unknown authors. Since then, McSweeney’s has evolved into a role model for financially stable self-publishing, blossoming into a widely revered platform for a variety of formats and genres: from its hugely popular namesake Quarterly Concern to the literature and arts magazine The Believer , edited by Eggers’ wife Vendela Vida, to the DVD journal put out under the film division Wholphin, to the most recent expansion into artists’ T-Shirts . However, all of the work put out by McSweeney’s shares not only a distinct and quirky aesthetic vocabulary but also determinedly personal sensibility and DIY philosophy, conveying a deep love for the beauty and the power of words and stories. Most importantly, perhaps, McSweeney’s has succeeded in making literature seem fun again, taking a firm stand for the printed page without shunning the Internet and modern technology. They even wiped the dust off that dreaded institution the Book Club and got away with.
In the meantime, Eggers’ personal interests took a decidedly political turn, with a distinctive and refreshing attitude towards engaging in a range of hands-on projects at the grassroots level, without being dogmatic or proposing grand, sweeping solutions. His activism, like his books, is focused on individual acts and individual subjects; on sustainable, effective, micro-level action. In 2002, he helped found 826 Valencia , a tutoring center and – literally – pirate supply store that now has branches in cities across the country. (Each branch is fronted by a different emporium: 826 Brooklyn sells superhero supplies.) He also started the Voice of Witness , a nonprofit book series that provides a venue for the stories of disenfranchised individuals: the wrongfully convicted, Sudanese refugees or victims of Hurricane Katrina . Eggers’ engagement with political activism on a personal level also found its way into his two most recent books, What is the What and Zeitoun , expanding on narratives and issues that first appeared in the Voice of Witness collection. Eggers has funneled their success back into his subjects’ communities: He helped finance a school in the Sudanese village where What is the What’s Valentino grew up, and established The Zeitoun Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and fostering dialogue between Islam and America.
As much praise as Eggers gains for his work – and the list doesn’t end here – it’s sometimes hard to understand some of the latent criticism aimed at him, which seems to basically break down to this slightly irritating quality of being, well, too good or simply doing too much or, paradoxically, of being too much like you and me. Or maybe it’s just that uneasy feeling of having a mirror held up and seeing what we could and might be capable of, if only we had the time and the determination and the talent and the energy to put into action all the things that we think important and exciting and, why not, fun.