The storefront of 826 in Brooklyn.
Dear Mr. Eggers,
My presence at your recent speech here in Little Rock was almost arbitrary; even though I attend the Clinton School’s speaker series more regularly than most any other employed person in the city, I had no desire to fawn with the other quasi-literary irony-smiths of my generation (born since 1970, before 1990) whom I expected to turn out. Yes, those of us who string together words for a living would all love to write books that garner the plaudits of “The Genius Work of a Staggering Heartbreaker” or whatever it was that turned you famous, and would love to adapt “Where the Wild Things Are” with Spike Jonze with a z, and would love a spoken cameo in a Beck album. But some of us are a little turned off when McSweeney’s reads like a running competition between 30-year-olds to see who among them can sound most like a precocious 14-year-old, and when self-reference devolves into navel-gazing. It all feels precious and frivolous and deliberately disposable, as if built to puncture and yet perpetuate the ennui of trustfunded twenty-somethings. Besides, my weekly church gym pick-up basketball game happens to be Wednesdays at 6. You were about to lose out.
But I went. And I’m damn glad I did. Because you seemed even less interested in your literary exploits than I was. Instead, you described the sites of 826 National – about which I knew zilch, but now understand to be a combination literacy outreach and after-school program – with an evangelist’s enthusiasm and a clinician’s candor. Everyone praises children’s literacy, even on the way to vote “no” on pay raises for teachers. You actually marshal the classroom space, the tutor platoon, the funds. You appear to have built a fun, safe place for kids to catch up in their studies or to hone their talents (and no doubt put underemployed liberal artists’ energies toward a fulfilling cause). You take particular care of the children of immigrant families, who you said have often wagered their entire lives on those kids’ educations. I was rather in awe, and I found myself suddenly happy that the Heinz Family Foundation picked you to receive a $250,000 humanities award – that you apparently dumped right back into 826 National.
When someone in the audience asked about starting a chapter in Little Rock, you replied that the only thing standing in the way is energy and money. At that moment, dozens of audience members began imagining possible vacant commercial space for such a venture (there’s plenty here, certainly) and thinking of how to hit up the richest folks they know. In concept and execution, the entire 826 project is staggering. Genius, even. And it’s work. Thanks for doing it, and thanks doubly from us ink-stained wretches who need a generation of readers raised on something other than YouTube comments. In case anyone wants to chip in: http://www.826national.org/