A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020,
Little, Brown and Company/Hatchette Book Group / 2021 / 576 pp / $32.00 Hardcover
Reviewed by JoAnne E. Lehman
The published diaries of David Sedaris—celebrated humor writer, regular New Yorker contributor, and author of numerous essay collections—are not just entertaining, though they certainly are that. And they’re more than an interesting stroll through the everyday observations of an edgy essayist, though they are that too. Sedaris has published two compilations, which together draw from more than forty years of diary-keeping and offer inspiration and model for developing essayists as we conceive of, create, and revise new work. Carnival is the second of those books, showcasing carefully chosen diary entries from the years 2003-2020. (The first book, Theft by Finding, included diary entries from 1977, when Sedaris was poor, unpublished, and single, through 2002, by which time he was an NPR and New Yorker sensation, had found his life partner, and had seen his first four essay collections published).
Another thing Sedaris’s published diary entries do is give a lot of readers the kind of experience his audiences get at a public reading; what he reads to audiences are not his fully developed essays but chunks of essays-in-process, which start out as diary entries like the ones included in Carnival and the earlier Theft. I was extremely lucky last December to get to see and hear Sedaris in person—if you can call it that when you’re watching and listening from an upper level of an auditorium filled with hundreds of fans—in Madison, Wisconsin, a year and a half after a scheduled appearance got canceled by Covid-19. Sedaris’s public readings are not only performances but also laboratories for his writing, as he made clear in his March 28, 2022, New Yorker essay, “Lucky-Go-Happy,” where he lamented his inability to tour and read to audiences during much of the pandemic: “Without a live audience . . . I’m lost,” he says. And, “I wrote during the pandemic. I published things, which was scary, as without a public reading I had no idea whether they actually worked or not.”
A Carnival of Snackery, like Theft by Finding, has no chapters, but instead a long string of diary entries arranged chronologically by date. The enigmatic titles of both books are very Sedaris, but in each volume their origins are eventually revealed in the text. In the case of Carnival, that happens in a March 2013 entry: some of his friends went to an Indian restaurant in London, where the menu described its offerings as “a carnival of snackery.” It’s a great metaphor for what the nearly 600 pages (more than 800 in the large-print edition the publisher sent me to review) serves up: snacks, and a wild array of them—some just tiny tidbits and some closer to a whole course; some exquisite and some of dubious taste; some light and airy with overtones of absurdity; some rich with emotional flavor and sprinkles of insight, and some a mix of all that; none of them a full meal in itself. (Go to the published essays for that! Collections abound. One of the newest, The Best of Me, curates previously published pieces that, according to New York Times reviewer Andrew Sean Greer, fully deliver on that title’s promise.)
Each diary entry in Carnival is headed by not only its date but also the city where Sedaris was at the time. He has lived and/or spent significant chunks of time in various locations, and he and his partner, Hugh, maintain multiple residences: Paris, La Bagotière, London, New York, and a beach house in South Carolina appear repeatedly. He also tours extensively and internationally for months at a time, not only reading on stage but also signing books (which really means engaging people in bizarre conversations) for hours before and after each performance/reading. Thus, for example, in 2008 there are entries from Athens, Greece, on April 6th; from Turin, Italy, on the 12th; Sherman, Connecticut, on the 28th; Paris on the 29th, London on May 8th, and Paris again on May 22nd. Sedaris clearly is energized by interaction with people of every sort—as long as it’s not small talk. As he explains to a chatty driver in Spokane in November 2015, he’s had it with being asked how he is:
“It’s just a lazy question,” I said. “Why not ask, I don’t know, ‘Have you ever donated
To stay amused and engaged and presumably to generate material for future essays, Sedaris asks unexpected questions of others, especially the folks who line up before and after readings to have him sign their copies of his books. For example, “I’ve started asking random men if, like me, they have a problem with leakage after they pee,” a June 2008 entry begins. And in perhaps his most famous interaction of this sort—he includes it in Carnival and reads it on tour—one question he randomly posed elicited a surprising answer:
September 25, 2004
A young woman approached my signing table a few months back in Boston, and
after asking her name, I hit her with the most ridiculous question I could think of. “Tell
me, Jennifer, how long has it been since you last . . . touched a monkey?”
I expected “Never” or “It’s been years,” but instead she took a small step back, saying,
“Oh, can you smell it on me?”
How does one consume so large a carnival of snackery as this book? Certainly not in one sitting; I mean, really, we’re talking 800+ pages in the large-print edition. One might think, from Sedaris’s own admission in his introduction, that the order in which this is read doesn’t matter:
I’ll remind the reader that this is my edit, a tiny fraction of what I’ve written to myself
over the past eighteen years . . . I chose entries that I thought were funny or startling
in some way. Theft by Finding, which covered  to 2002, had a narrative arc.
“David Copperfield Sedaris,” Hugh called it. If there’s an arc to this book, I don’t know
what it is.
I for one did read Carnival straight through, and I think that’s worth doing, rather than just dipping in and out at random. It did take many, many sittings. And I’m such a Sedaris nerd-fan that before I got halfway through, I felt compelled to get hold of Theft by Finding and read those entries too, also in order. I have to agree with Hugh about the earlier book’s arc, given that it starts in obscurity, substance abuse, and barely making ends meet and ends up with not only with publication and growing fame but also sobriety and a life partnership. But I’m not completely convinced of the absence of an arc in Carnival. At the very least, a timeline of important historical periods and events, as well as significant personal and family developments, emerges in these pages, from the election of George W. Bush to the war in Iraq; from a sister’s tumultuous decline through mental illness to her death by overdose; from what was expected to be his father’s death in 2019 (but the older Sedaris recovered and lived longer, even surviving Covid) to the beginnings of the pandemic and lockdown in 2020. Maybe I’ll read the book again with more of an eye to arc. Maybe you’ll want to read it that way, or not. But if you’re a Sedaris follower, or even if you’ve only read an essay or two, you’ll probably want to read the diaries. And essayists, particularly those of us who want to include humor in our writing, would do well to read both his diaries and his published essays, examining the trajectory his work takes from snack to full meal.
JoAnne E. Lehman earned an MFA at Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. Her personal essays, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, have appeared in The Cresset and The Writing Disorder, and another is forthcoming in Round Table Literary Review.