A modern master of the literary universe

Dave Egger says a good book should leave readers feeling “dizzy’’ after they put it down.
Dave Egger says a good book should leave readers feeling “dizzy’’ after they put it down.
By Eugenia Williamson
June 6, 2010

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In the annals of literary history, the years 2000 to 2010 will be known as the Age of Eggers. The era commenced with the publication of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’’ Dave Eggers’s blockbuster memoir that cemented self-awareness and formal flourishes as the stylistic hallmarks of a generation. McSweeney’s, Eggers’s quarterly journal and publishing arm, has featured most of the important young writers to emerge thus far in the new century. Those not represented there may appear in a McSweeney’s-affiliated monthly literary magazine (The Believer), daily humor website (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency), or quarterly DVD film sampler (Wholphin).

Besides helming a taste-making empire, Eggers has founded a string of inner-city literacy centers. In the last month, the 826 Boston center published two anthologies from students at Greater Egleston and English high schools. Eggers also has taken up the mantle of speaking for the voiceless. In 2006, he published “What Is the What,’’ a novel based closely on the life of a Sudanese Lost Boy. Next week, “Zeitoun,’’ Eggers’s nonfiction account of a Syrian-American who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, will be available in paperback.

Do you Kindle?

I mean no disrespect to anyone who reads on a Kindle, but the experience seems kind of sterile to me. I understand the impulse for those who want to read multiple books on long airplane trips, but otherwise . . . I don’t know. It’s like the difference between eating a meal, and standing on a sidewalk, outside a restaurant, watching someone eat a meal. Maybe I just have a problem with mediating all life experiences through a screen. I’m sick of screens.

What’s the heaviest book you own?

The biggest book I’ve read is “Rising Up and Rising Down’’ by William T. Vollmann. It’s 3,300 pages, and because we published it at McSweeney’s, I had to read most of it two or three times. The heaviest book I own is probably a Bible from 1906 that’s about 30 pounds. It serves as the base of a book-ziggurat I have in my house.

Has a book ever changed the way you think about the world?

Constantly. That’s pretty much the mark of a good book, I think. You really should put it down and feel dizzy. The first time I felt that way was after reading Frank Herbert’s “Dune’’ when I was 14. I wandered through the halls of high school dazed for a few hours.

Who’s the most important living author?

I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I’ll say that one of my favorite living writers is Edward P. Jones. “The Known World’’ is probably my favorite book by a living author; I reread it often, just to be reminded what it looks like when an author has absolute command over the world he’s created. There’s not a word out of place.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a bunch of books about Saudi Arabia, and Robert Lacey’s “Inside the Kingdom’’ is pretty incredible. A very good book I read recently is Annie La Ganga’s “Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints,’’ a collection of very short vignettes about being dumb and reckless in your 20s. It’s really funny and moving and very real, insanely candid. I haven’t read anything like it in a while.

Have you ever had a crush on a character? If you weren’t married already, do you still think you’d make a good match?

When I was young, Madame Bovary, hands down. But I don’t know if she’s generally thought of as a stable life partner. I also seem to fall for all of Lorrie Moore’s protagonists. They’re all so witty and world-weary and wanting.