A Few Reasons Why Dave Eggers Is a Great American
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Editor's Note: Dave Eggers will be appearing Thursday eveningas part of the City Arts and Lectures series at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco to discuss his book Zeitounwith Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The event will be hosted by Wajahat Ali.
When I set my eyes on the horizon, seeking some hope for the future, there aren't so many great role models, and of course there are many factors that are downright depressing. Progressive unions are fighting each other for turf and numbers; too many elected officials are plainly dominated by corporate influence and nonprofit leaders find themselves compromised by funding and their efforts to be real players.
When I look around for bright hope for the future, for leaders, for creative forces who refuse to be discouraged by our terrible times, the writer, editor, publisher, organizer and teacher Dave Eggers stands out.
Eggers is already an icon for his generation with popular books -- most noteworthy among them his breakout memoir, A HeartbreakingWork of Staggering Genius. He has a well-deserved reputation for social commitment, while his quirkiness endears him to his fellow hip Gen X'ers, mostly in urban areas around the country. But Eggers' fame and style can also stir up hostility, as happened with his screenwriting debut with his wife Vendela Vida, Away We Go. Some reviewers decided the characters were overly cute and stylized, not totally authentic or believable hipster parents.
Dave Eggers is less well-known in progressive political circles, where creativity and Gen X sensibilities have never quite come to terms with traditional progressive political organizing and activism. That's too bad, because there are some important lessons to be learned from Eggers' model, and perhaps vice-versa.
There is no denying that Eggers is one of the most productive and influential creative forces in America. His 826 reading and writing centers for young people, started in San Francisco at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District, have expanded to eight cities serving thousands of public school kids, and attracting writing talent and celebrity to the cause.
His magazine, The Believer, features up-and-coming writers as well as established literary voices. McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is a money-making publishing phenomenon, which comes in many forms, depending on what creative forces are at work on a particular edition. Eggers' latest version of McSweeney's is Panorama, a 320-page mega-newspaper, printed as a broadsheet (making it much bigger than the New York Times) and featuring a magazine, book review section, even sports and cartoons along with great reporting and writing by everyone from Stephen King to Junot Díaz and George Saunders. (You can buy it at independent bookstores and no, it is not online.) The project, which was issue #33 of McSweeney's, cost $235,000. McSweeney's publishes books too -- by people like Nick Hornby, Art Spiegelman and, well, Dave Eggers. But the project that caught my attention is his Voice of Witness series, a compilation of oral histories on everything from Hurricane Katrina to the underground world of undocumented immigrants.
With Eggers, there is sometimes the feeling that many roads lead back to him. I've known Dave in a modest way going back to his Might magazine days in the 1990s when his team shared office space with AlterNet due to Eggers' friendship with Larry Smith, then managing editor of AlterNet (who has since gone on to fame with his Six-Word Memoirs).
Now quite a few years later, my Eggers connection came from 7,000 miles away after I received an e-mail from Zoe, a super-talented young writer and daughter of a dear friend, who was looking for fund-raising advice for a book focusing on interviews of refugees from Burma, people escaping the longest lasting and possibly most brutal civil war on Earth. After getting the e-mail, I called Mac McClelland, my resident Burma expert, whose book For Us, Surrender Is Out of the Question, about refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, was featured on AlterNet. McClelland said, "Oh, that must be connected to Dave Eggers' Voice of Witness series," which I hadn't yet heard about.