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‘Staggering Genius’ Cracks Up Students

By Emily S. High, Crimson Staff Writer

It’s easy to think you know Dave Eggers after reading his work—just ask his legion of rabid intellectual fans. But last week, about 150 Harvard students and faculty spent an hour getting closer to the post-postmodern hero than any of the countless readers of Eggers’ self-referential, hyperactive fiction, pyrotechnically clever literary journal and wittily personal 2000 meta-memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Eggers was invited by fellow young luminary Zadie Smith, who is a visiting lecturer at Harvard this year, to give one in an ongoing series of readings to the Harvard audience. Those who showed up got a reading, but that was only the beginning of the evening’s festivities: true to form, Eggers filled out the hour with bizarre anecdotes, off-kilter observations and a laid-back bantering session with his appreciators.

Clad in jeans and a black baseball cap, the idiosyncratic author gestured wildly and shared his thoughts on his hair, sea brigands and baseball over the course of the evening.

“I fucking hate the Yankees,” Eggers offered at one point, winning raucous applause. “It seems like IBM is fielding a baseball team.”

Eggers also regaled his listeners on topics including the Old West and the pirate supply store he has established as a legal front for 826 Valencia, the writing lab he established in a strict retail zone of San Francisco last April.

During the more traditional portion of his appearance, Eggers read part of a forthcoming work, which he said “doesn’t have an ending yet.” At a student’s request, he read several short stories.

Undergraduates in attendance—many of them English concentrators and students in creative writing classes—raved that Eggers was both humorous and down to earth.

“Meeting him and hearing him speak in person was not too far removed from reading [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius],” said Kim T. Nguyen ’06, an English concentrator. Eggers is loath to use the word “memoir” to describe Genius, which most students towed along for him to sign. The story is tragic and indeed his own, relating the nearly-simultaneous death of both of his parents and the bond that followed as he played surrogate parent to his younger brother Toph. But with ironic laughter injected into the most tear-jerking circumstances, songs and imagined interviews erupting within the text, and an extended mockery out of traditional book formatting, Genius is far from the average life story. It is also packed with generational allusions and an insistent profanity, distinguishing it from most book-of-the-month fare.

“I never thought anyone much older than me would read that book,” Eggers said.

But his ribaldry, foul language and madcap tone didn’t deter many—the book rushed him to the most elite sector of the literary world soon after its publication and won the respect of countless other innovative writers, including Smith herself.

“There is genuine life in that book,” she said in her introductory remarks last week. A close friend and colleague of Eggers, Smith launched a few well-placed personal jabs while praising his creativity and ability to make her—and an audience—laugh.

After reading, Eggers opened the floor for questions with one caveat: “No creepy questions.” Among other subjects, he went on to explain the origins of 826 Valencia, telling of how he had put the expertise of his many magazine interns and recent English graduates to work.

They placed a simple sandwich board outside their door with “English Tutoring Available” emblazoned on the front, he recalled, and waited for the project to be set in motion.

“The idea was to put this vast body of untapped expertise and goodwill to work in these underprivileged classrooms,” said Eggers.

826 Valencia now has around 460 volunteer tutors who are sent into schools all over the city. Eggers encouraged audience members to e-mail him at 826 Valencia if they were interested in tutoring over the summer or after graduation.

After the reading, he settled into one of the plush desk seats of Science Center C and made witty conversation with about 100 students who remained behind for Eggers to sign copies of his books.

One undergraduate enthusiastically summed up the night’s multifarious events.

“After watching Dave’s reading, after watching him kick his coat against the lectern, carve out a pair of breasts in the air with his hands, pick at a piece of tape on the stand at least once every five minutes for the duration of the reading…I came away feeling like I knew the guy much more than the other authors I’ve seen this fall,” said Ryan M. Riley ’06.

—Staff writer Emily S. High can be reached at high@fas.harvard.edu.

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