How to Achieve Horrible Lighting, with David Sedaris

David Sedaris, Overhead Lighting

Back in February, Harper’s Bazaar published an essay written by David Sedaris about his disdain for overhead lighting. In it, he recounts the role that the color-washing, skin tone-obliterating, poison that is overhead light has played in his life. He starts the essay by happily remarking that the low ceilings in his 500-year-old bungalow in England, while they may injure him and his guests (he tells of scraping bits of scalp from the doorjamb), at least prevent the installation of overhead lighting.

In typical fashion, Sedaris humorously depicts his family in order to illustrate his point. He remarks that if his father were a talking doll with a pull cord, who spoke his most common phrases whenever the cord was pulled, he would mechanically utter “Turn the damn light on!” followed by “Turn that damn light off!” This would be, of course, in reference to the overhead lights. David Sedaris remarks that the latter phrase – Turn that damn light off! – is one that has become a standard from his own lips.

He brings us to the center of his early family life, the kitchen table. We see his father sit down to eat the meal his mother has prepared and exclaim, seconds after sitting down, that he can’t see his food, and would someone please “Turn the damn light on!” This causes dismay. His mother prefers candlelight and always has candles at dinner. Once the overhead lights blast on, everyone looks “sallow.” The colors are all washed out. The gravy stains above the buffet again become visible and unforgivable. Once his father leaves, David and his siblings flick off the lights again and sit around the table in candlelight for hours, smoking cigarettes as a family unit.

“Everyone looked better in the soft glow of a candle,” writes Sedaris.

We are then led to his teenage bedroom and his dormitory, where Sedaris shows us that, as someone particularly attuned to the lighting in a given room, one who could actually achieve “shivers” from the way that sunlight played in slats on his well-made bed, he was inherently different from “other guys.” He was very neat and very concerned with aesthetics.

What made him different in his younger years is what unites him to his long-time life partner, Hugh. They have very different taste in books and movies but both abhor overhead lighting. He writes, “it’s enough to keep us together. Every night the candles are lit and placed on the kitchen table. In their glow I can see the person I met almost 25 years ago, young again, and dashing. The effect is even better when I take off my glasses, leaving nothing between him and the eyes I have ruined with a lifetime of reading in the dark.”

I think it’s very interesting the way Sedaris celebrates dimness like it’s a comfort, something to wrap around oneself in a too-bright world. The fantastic comfort of illusion, of softening, of flattering alteration, is something you might expect to be valued by a creative writer like Sedaris. I agree completely: Candlelight is great. However, I’m not a candlelight every night kind of guy.

Because I know what a dimmer switch is. And how to achieve flattering light safely and efficiently. I like to be able to turn up the lights once a while and, you know, clean. Thoroughly. I don’t want there to be gravy stains that go unnoticed because of poor lighting. Having gravy stains seems like a less-than-stellar call to me. In fact, I’m a little confused as to why the author who characterizes himself as fundamentally neater than most other guys would harbor so much nostalgia for food crust caked around the kitchen!

But, whatever. I’m a huge fan of his work. He’s a brilliant writer and is responsible for paroxysms of laughter all over the world at any given moment. Right now, someone is smiling because of his work, I’ll bet. And…right now, too. His books are all great, even if this short piece is a little weird.

Overhead lighting doesn’t have to be horrible anymore, David! There are lots of great options that might be safer than tiny fires under your low ceilings! Let’s talk!


Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.