Dave Eggers’ Setlists For Literacy

Working with fellow novelists Nick Hornby and Michael Chabon, he's taken an unconventional approach to a literary fundraiser.

Dave Eggers doesn’t seem like a man with excessive amounts of spare time. He’s a Bay Area literary establishment, a celebrated novelist, the co-founder of youth writing outreach organization 826 Valencia, and the founding editor of quarterly literary journal McSweeney’s. (Of course there’s more where that came from, but think of this as the greatest hits list.) But in recent months his schedule happened to allow for him to step into one more role: “setlist historian-connoisseur.”

The self-bestowed title arrives towards the end of preparations for Setlists For Young Voices, an online setlist auction-fundraiser to benefit The International Congress for Youth Voices and Ministry of Stories. The former is a global gathering of young activism-minded writers, many from disenfranchised communities; the latter is novelist Nick Hornby’s youth writing center in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London, its approach modeled after 826 Valencia.

According to Eggers, Setlist For Young Voices was entirely Hornby’s idea.

“He just emailed one day and said, ‘Why don’t we try to gather some setlists and auction them off and raise some money?’ It resonated right away with me,” says Eggers.

Perhaps some of that instant resonance stemmed from the project’s nostalgic value.

“When I was in college, I used to try to get the setlists from the bands that played in Champaign-Urbana, where I went to school,” he says. “There was something always about that piece of paper as a scruffy artifact that was one step up from your ticket stub in terms of proving you were there.”

So Eggers, Hornby, and their friend and fellow novelist Michael Chabon started reaching out to musicians and asking for setlist donations. Setlists started flowing into the office, replete with “the mistakes, the cross-outs, the signature, the tape, the dents, the rips, the wear and tear.” The receiving process was nothing short of delightful. (See the full list here.)

“They’re all just [in] these very basic, humble envelopes,” says Eggers. “What’s weird is they make you happy. Anytime we open one of those envelopes, we always smile.”

Up for grabs are setlists from Pete Townshend, Janelle Monáe’s recent Coachella performance (thanks to Eggers’ friendship with her creative director Chuck Lightning), Mitski, Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, R.E.M., Rush’s penultimate tour, and Def Leppard. Eggers is somewhat partial to Patti Smith’s entirely handwritten contributions, several of which bear the letterhead of one elegant European hotel or another.

“It’s just as astonishingly beautiful as you’d expect from Patti Smith,” he says.

The causes the auction will fund remain close to Eggers’ heart. Funds benefitting to the International Youth Congress will help approximately 200 teenaged writers travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico — double the attendance of last year’s event at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Eggers remembers that particular gathering as “one of the highlights of my life.”

As for Eggers’ own setlist wish list? A certain Pretenders setlist caught his eye weeks ago when it arrived at the organization’s offices.

“I was very tempted to put it aside and make a donation that would represent a fair price because it was just every one of my favorite songs of theirs and it was signed by Chrissie Hynde,” he says. “I had to resist that temptation. It will be in the auction.”

Setlists For Young Voices opens for bidding Monday, April 22, 7 p.m., and closes Thursday, May 2. The auction and all setlists can be found at youthwriting.org/bid


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