How To Be Alone

Kristin knows I like Jonathan Franzen's writing so when she saw a collection of his essays in the bookstore, she immediately bought it for me for Christmas not realizing that the title, "How to Be Alone" might seem a little suggestive of bad times ahead. I tore away the wrapping paper and saw the title of the book and immediately said, "What are you trying to tell me with this? You want a divorce or something?" She and my brother both laughed but it wasn't until I saw Franzen's name on the bottom and realized what the book was, that I joined in. I know a guy who recently got dumped by email on Valentine's Day. That's really bad. Getting a book titled "How to be Alone" served up on Christmas with a side of divorce papers would have been monumentally devastating.

Of course, we're very happily married and my concern over the title was really just an act. But enough about that, let's talk about the book.

Franzen gained a lot of popularity in 2001 with the release of his critically-acclaimed book "The Corrections". It was a really enjoyable read about an utterly dysfunctional family and their very separate lives and how they had to make the trip back to their midwestern home to spend one final Christmas together with their parents. The book was one of the year's best sellers and gained recommendation from Oprah's book club. That is, until Franzen fought the idea of Oprah's recognizable sticker gracing the cover of his book. Chaos and hate mail ensued. Naturally, those who love dirt and controversy will be pleased to see him address this time in his life with the essay Meet Me in St. Louis, which is included in this collection.

The collection's title and many of the essays within it center around Franzen's concern over the state of literature and, more or less, reading as a whole. And while some of the essays deal with such things as prisons-for-profit, the horrendous Chicago postal service, the myth of the loss of privacy, and his father's brain autopsy, the overlying theme is one in which Franzen debates the fiction writer's role as social critic. And does that role exist anymore, and if so, does anybody care. The majority of the essays in the collection are from the mid to late 1990's and as we all are aware, the world has become a different place since then. Reading Franzen's descriptions about his life in New York feels particularly dated. Nevertheless, most of the essays are pretty enjoyable, and will undoubtedly teach you something new on at least one or two different topics. Those who don't desire a heady discussion about literature and its place in society may want to stear clear.

Here's a few excerpts I thought were particularly interesting.

I can't stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don't believe that everything that's wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feels like the sick one, have in offering it? It's hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness. -- From "Why Bother?"

Our Privacy panic isn't merely exaggerated. It's founded on a fallacy...

In the suburbs end exurbs where the typical American lives today, tiny nuclear families inhabit enormous houses, in which each person has his or her own bedroom and, some times, bathroom. Compared even with suburbs in the sixties and seventies, when I was growing up, the contemporary condominium development and gated community offers a striking degree of anonymity. It's no longer the rule that you know your neighbors. Communities increasingly tend to be virtual, the participants either faceless or firmly in control of the face they present. Transportation is largely private: the latest SUVs are the size of living rooms and come with onboard telephones, CD players, and TV screens; behind the tinted windows of one of these high-riding I-see-you-but-you-can't-see-me mobile PrivacyGuard units, a person can be wearing pajamas or a licorice bikini, for all anybody knows or cares. Maybe the government intrudes on the family a little more than it did a hundred years ago, but these intrusions don't begin to make up for the small-town snooping they've replaced. -- From "Imperial Bedroom"

Once upon a time, characters inhabited charged fields of status and geography. Now, increasingly, the world is binary. You either have or you don't have. You're functional or you're dysfunctional, you're wired or you're tired. Unhappy families, perhaps even more than happy ones, are all identically patched in to CNN, The Lion King, and America Online. It's more than a matter of cultural references; it's the very texture of their lives. And if a novel depends on the realization of complex characters against a background of a larger society, how do you write on when the background is indistinguishable from the foreground? -- From "The Reader in Exile"

The press covers crime because crime sells -- because the white audience loves to hear about it. Then the intensive, decontextualized, and highly salable coverage of crime becomes evidence of a Crime Epidemic; the Audience gets "sick and tired" of hearing about a thing that every marketer knows it actually never gets sick or tired of hearing about, and it empowers its elected representatives to Get Tough. Thus the crimial is demonized. The distance between Us and Him grows and grows, thereby ensuring that here in the country that invented the Western and the crime drama and the News At Eleven, in the country that celebrated the James brothers and Bonnie and Clyde, we will always be able to hear what we most don't want to hear, which is what we most want to hear. -- From "Control Units"

Just as every lover at some level believes that he or she makes love as it's made nowhere else on the planet, so every artist clings for dear life to the illusion that the art he or she produces is vital, necessary, and unique.

Aesthetic elitism, sexual snobbery: these are not the reprehensible attitudes that our culture makes them out to be. They're the efforts of the individual to secure a small space of privacy within the prevailing din. All people should be elitists -- and keep it to themselves. -- From "Books in Bed"

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