Literature’s Bono: A One-Man Zeitgest
by Fiona Crawford - April 12th, 2013
I tried to obtain a review copy of Caroline Hamilton’s One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity when it was first released as a prohibitively expensive hardcover in 2010.
And I was, I’ll admit, summarily miffed that the publisher wasn’t even polite enough to issue me a ‘nice try, but you can pay for it in full’ reply.
I caved and bought One Man Zeitgeist in recent weeks because I needed it for my university research and because I discovered that it’s finally out in a more affordable paperback format.
Almost incontrollable itching to hyphenate the title aside, I actually laughed when the book arrived. It was so slim Boomerang Books had to pack the mailbag with some extra cardboard lest its flimsy pages get minced beyond readable recognition in transit.
I’m not implying that Hamilton’s work is flimsy—far from it—just that the book is a lot thinner than I, after three years of attempting to get a hold of it, expected. It is, as the cover tells us, the ‘first extensive analysis of the works of Dave Eggers, a man who has grown from a small-time media upstart into one of the most influential author-publishers of the twenty-first century’.
I fell in love with Eggers from the opening pages of his breakout memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and have developed a near-obsessive fascination with and respect for him and his career and humanitarian work ever since.
McSweeney’s is a hipster-worthy publication, but it’s posted some fantastic monologues in its time, not least I’m Comic Sans, Asshole. It’s also beautifully presented. Eggers is one of the few authors, Hamilton writes, whose work it possible to identify ‘on the basis of typeface alone’.
Between his wresting back of the publishing ownership and power from the big guys, his determination to give back via his work and his work’s proceeds, and, well, every single outstanding and bestselling text he’s since published, Eggers is pretty much my hero.
Even if he hadn’t been, Zeitoun would have made him so. That book rocked my world and re-reinvented (he seems to have undergone multiple reinventions) Eggers’ career and ethos. In fact, the book arguably cemented his abilities to make the world a better place through words.
Oh, and then he kicked off 826 Valencia, a charitable arm that sees writers volunteer their time to tutor children from underprivileged backgrounds. As Hamilton quotes Eggers in the book from something he reportedly said while speaking to a journalist: ‘I felt like I was back where I knew what I was doing on the planet. I was liberated by a sense of obligation. I knew how I could be useful.’ Useful? Yes. Heroic and inspiring? Yes, indeed.
‘Through sheer weight of media coverage alone, Eggers has earned the rather extraordinary accolade of being a “one man zeitgeist”’, Hamilton tells us. It’s also seen him dubbed, backhandedly, as the ‘Bono of Literature’. It’s a scathing indictment, but one that reeks too of tall poppy syndrome and jealousy.
Eggers’ is a career that confounds most of us—fans or foes—but Hamilton’s book brings us the most comprehensive understanding to date of a career that’s undoubtedly going to continue to influence the way the author–publisher and the industry as operates. One Man Zeitgeist reads like a PhD thesis, which is arguably what it was.
But kudos to Hamilton for getting it published as a commercially available book that has some chance of being read by someone other than her supervisors and her mum—that’s the ultimate (and arguably very Eggers) outcome for postgraduate students. I’ll be keen to read future instalments from her—surely Eggers’ life and career will warrant further study (and yes, I’m aware I’ll likely have to wait for the paperback versions and pay for them too).