“I’ve been making a lot of duct tape wallets,” David Rakoff says of his most recent pursuits. “For friends and family—it’s a hobby of mine, they don’t pay me to make them.”
The sudden rash of adhesive-based accoutrements doesn’t constitute a new direction for the humorist and author so much as a means of putting off his next book. Rakoff and fellow humorist Sarah Vowell—both contributors to Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life”—will be reading selections of their work tonight at Sanders Theater as a part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.
“It will be a bacchanal,” Rakoff says. “I’m going to set myself on fire.”
His counterpart Vowell is the author of bestsellers such as “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” and “Assassination Vacation,” which takes a historical tour of the scenes of three presidential assassinations. She is now writing a book on the history of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Puritan squabbling between John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson that resulted in the founding of Rhode Island and Connecticut.
“Do they tell you when they’re indoctrinating you in Harvard history that your school was founded because a bunch of poor Massachusetts boys were outsmarted by a girl and didn’t want it to happen again?” she says in reference to her recent research.
Rakoff’s accessory-making hasn’t stopped him from pursuing new projects, either. The author of two books of essays, 2001’s “Fraud” and 2006’s “Don’t Get Too Comfortable,” he’s approaching his next book about “pessimism and melancholy” with—appropriately enough—dread.
“I’m currently facing it with white-knuckle terror, and eventually the panic will fester into a boil that will goad me into action,” Rakoff says.
To convey its tone, he cites a YouTube clip of his favorite depressing song. The video sets images from the Great Depression and the First World War against Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
Though he finds the song “surprisingly applicable” to the looming economic recession, Rakoff is more upbeat about the recent electoral turnaround in Florida, claiming to be overjoyed. He’s a resident of New York City since 1983 and a dual American-Canadian citizen since 2003 and a professed liberal.
“I’m so glad that reason somehow prevailed, and that [Rudy Giuliani] is no longer ‘America’s Mayor,’” he says.
However, he finds it hard to shake his cynicism, and says, “I fear that the Democrats might still find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Vowell focuses on current events of a different nature, discussing her thoughts on the current Writers’ Guild Strike both as a friend of many focal figures in the fray and as a writer herself.
“The fact that [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert came back on the air to keep their crew working—I respect that. Maybe elsewhere it feels like, ‘Oh, there’s less stuff on TV,’ but it [the strike] is going on so long because of pure greed.”
She firmly believes that writers deserve credit for their work, and that one of the forms that credit should take is a paycheck. “I have to deal with this a little bit in my line of work because of the Internet too, like when I was writing Op-Ed pieces for the New York Times, and they were trying to charge people to read the columns,” Vowell says. “I think part of being a writer is being compensated for your toil.”
As for their own travails, the Celebrity Series event in Sanders will consist of a combination of both writers’ older material and new musings that may make it into their next books. “There’ll possibly be some new stuff,” says Rakoff. “We try to get the balance and the mix right, so we can complement each other in ways that are interesting for the audience. We don’t want to show up dressed in the same outfit, otherwise, you know, there’ll be tears before breakfast.”
Vowell went as far as to outline an ambitious presentation where she arranges her historical pieces chronologically to tell the whole of American history in an hour. But, she says, “With Rakoff up there I’ll have to do it in half an hour.”
For his part, Rakoff finds the idea of this sort of reading comparably as daunting as whitewater-rafting through Patagonia. But maybe it’s best to get away from the duct tape. Rakoff admits, “Without this sort of thing, I’d never leave my apartment.”