“Don’t judge books by their covers. Judge them by their copyright pages,” said no one ever.
Nonetheless, it would be sound advice for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. The copyright page of this curious memoir includes a paragraph on the size and impact of large publishing companies, a sexual orientation scale and a statement of American liberty.
There follows a page titled “Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of this Book,” a preface that includes the omissions from previous editions, a table of contents that takes five minutes to read and no less than 13 pages of acknowledgments. If the reader didn’t catch Eggers’ stinging wit, infuriating creativity and surprisingly gentle heart from the copyright page, no doubts remain past the first chapter.
Eggers lost both of his parents when he was 22, both to cancer, in the space of five weeks. Eggers and his two older siblings were left to care for the house, the bills and their 7-year-old brother, Toph. But this is not a sob story. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a story about a family who jumped in a car after a funeral and drove cross-country to California, moved into and out of a succession of houses and tried to figure out the same important things we all do — such as how to reach maximum speeds when sock-sliding through a hallway.
The book wants to be heroic, heartbreaking, uplifting and funny. Eggers’ writing is self-conscious but blasé. It seems as if he writes as he thinks — his passages are wildly out of order and yet perfectly chronological if you think about the way in which you experience the world. The result of Eggers’ style is something that feels real. Because of his humor, cold worry and cloying irony, this book reads as one of the most honest experiences I’ve ever seen put to paper.
I recommend A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to anyone who is sick of school-reading lists and hungry for a narrative that is entertaining, relatable, painful and laugh-out-loud funny all at the same time. Eggers reminds his readers of the random and absurd beauty that infuses human life, even in the pit of tragedy. So maybe this is one of the books that can be judged by its title, too. The wonder of a book like this is, indeed, heartbreaking and undeniably genius.
Hannah Laga Abram is a senior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Contact her at email@example.com.