Cover image for How to be alone : essays
Title:
How to be alone : essays
Author:
Franzen, Jonathan.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Physical Description:
278 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780374173272
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Passionate, strong-minded nonfiction from the National Book Award-winning author of The Correction s Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Nearly every in-depth review of it discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the fate of the American novel. This essay is reprinted for the first time in How to be Alone , along with the personal essays and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections . Although his subjects range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each piece wrestles with familiar themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Recent pieces include a moving essay on his father's stuggle with Alzheimer's disease (which has already been reprinted around the world) and a rueful account of Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author.As a collection, these essays record what Franzen calls "a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance - even a celebration - of being a reader and a writer." At the same time they show the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life that help make Franzen one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.


Author Notes

Jonathan Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois on August 17, 1959. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1981, and went on to study at the Freie University in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar. He worked in a seismology lab at Harvard University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences after graduation.

His works include The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), Strong Motion (1992), How to Be Alone (2002), and The Discomfort Zone (2006). The Corrections (2001) won a National Book Award and the 2002 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Freedom (2010) is an Oprah Book Club selection. He also won a Whiting Writers' Award in 1988 and the American Academy's Berlin Prize in 2000. He is also a frequent contributor to Harper's and The New Yorker. In 2015 his title Purity made The New Yort Times and New Zealand Best Seller List.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Franzen won the National Book Award (and, prior to that, Booklist's Top of the List award) for his sharply comedic and deeply compassionate novel The Corrections [BKL Jl 01], but he also drew fire for his fumbled response to being chosen as an Oprah author. Here, in his first essay collection, the qualities of mind that make him a relentlessly questioning thinker, and piercing and candid writer, one willing to ponder the finer points regarding reading, publishing, and the packaging of authors raised by Oprah's Book Club, are revealed, and Franzen's standing as a significant, indeed, essential literary voice is resoundingly reaffirmed. Here is the now infamous Harper's essay about the state of the novel, conscionable skepticism regarding popular culture and the addictive technologies that disseminate it, concern with our obsession with privacy and concomitant degradation of the public sphere, inquiries into the prison system and urban life, insights into depression, and, underlying all, love for and faith in literature. Franzen also quietly illuminates the intense emotions and personal experiences, most movingly his father's succumbing to Alzheimer's, that went into the writing of The Corrections and his inability to transform himself from artist into commodity. --Donna Seaman


Publisher's Weekly Review

Bestselling and National Book Award- winning novelist Franzen (The Corrections) urges readers to say no to drugs, but not the pharmaceutical kind; his opiates are those "technology offers in the form of TV, pop culture, and endless gadgetry," soporifics that "are addictive and in the long run only make society's problems worse." Franzen's just as hard on intellectual conformity-on academe's canonization of third-rate but politically correct novels, for example. As a serious artist, he knows that the deck is stacked against him; after all, a great novel is a kind of antiproduct, one that is "inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable." The problem, he says, is that instead of being allowed to enjoy our solitary uniqueness we are all being turned into one gigantic corporate-created entity, a point Franzen makes tellingly when he says that while a black lesbian New Yorker and a Southern Baptist Georgian might appear totally different, the truth is that both "watch Letterman every night, both are struggling to find health insurance... both play Lotto, both dream of fifteen minutes of fame, both are taking a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and both have a guilty crush on Uma Thurman." These canny, well-researched essays (which have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's and elsewhere) range over a variety of subjects, from the antiquated and bizarrely inefficient Chicago postal system to the bizarrely efficient new privatized federal prisons, but they are united by a single passionate insistence that, in a cookie-cutter world, people who want simply to be themselves should have the right to do so. (Oct.) Forecast: This cultural critique is unlikely to sell like The Corrections, but anyone who missed the controversial 1996 "Harper's essay" can catch it here in slightly revised form, and Franzen's many admirers will buy it. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Remember the controversial Harper's essay on the American novel? That's in this collection, along with commentary on life, technology, and Oprah. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

A WORD ABOUT THIS BOOK MY THIRD NOVEL, The Corrections, which I'd worked on for many years, was published a week before the World Trade Center fell. This was a time when it seemed that the voices of self and commerce ought to fall silent--a time when you wanted, in Nick Carraway's phrase, "the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever." Nevertheless, business is business. Within forty-eight hours of the calamity, I was giving interviews again. My interviewers were particularly interested in what they referred to as "the Harper's essay." (Nobody used the original title, "Perchance to Dream," that the magazine's editors had given it.) Interviews typically began with the question: "In your Harper's essay in 1996, you promised that your third book would be a big social novel that would engage with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature; do you think you've kept that promise with The Corrections?" To each succeeding interviewer I explained that, no, to the contrary, I had barely mentioned my third novel in the essay; that the notion of a "promise" had been invented out of thin air by an editor or a headline writer at the Times Sunday Magazine; and that, in fact, far from promising to write a big social novel that would bring news to the mainstream, I'd taken the essay as an opportunity to renounce that variety of ambition. Because most interviewers hadn't read the essay, and because the few who had read it seemed to have misunderstood it, I became practiced at giving a clear, concise précis of its argument; by the time I did my hundredth or hundred-tenth interview, in November, I'd worked up a nice little corrective spiel that began, "No, actually, the Harper's essay was about abandoning my sense of social responsibility as a novelist and learning to write fiction for the fun and entertainment of it . . ." I was puzzled, and more than a little aggrieved, that nobody seemed able to discern this simple, clear idea in the text. How willfully stupid, I thought, these media people were! In December I decided to pull together an essay collection that would include the complete text of "Perchance to Dream" and make clear what I had and hadn't said in it. But when I opened the April 1996 Harper's I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousandword complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it. In the five years since I'd written the essay, I'd managed to forget that I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person. I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn't share his particular faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times. I used to think that our American political economy was a vast cabal whose specific aim was to thwart my artistic ambitions, exterminate all that I found lovely in civilization, and also rape and murder the planet in the process. The first third of the Harper's essay was written from this place of anger and despair, in a tone of high theoretical dudgeon that made me cringe a little now. It's true that, even in 1996, I intended the essay to document a stalled novelist's escape from the prison of his angry thoughts. And so part of me is inclined now to reprint the thing exactly as it first appeared, as a record of my former zealotry. I'm guessing, though, that most readers will have limited appetite for pronouncements such as It seemed clear to me that if anybody who mattered in business or government believed there was a future in books, we would not have been witnessing such a frenzy in Washington and on Wall Street to raise half a trillion dollars for an Infobahn whose proponents paid lip service to the devastation it would wreak on reading ("You have to get used to reading on a screen") but could not conceal their indifference to the prospect. Because a little of this goes a long way, I've exercised my authorial license and cut the essay by a quarter and revised it throughout. (I've also retitled it "Why Bother?") Although it's still very long, my hope is that it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement. If nothing else, I want to be able to point to it and say, "See, the argument is really quite clear and simple, just like I said!" What goes for the Harper's essay goes for this collection as a whole. I intend this book, in part, as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance--even a celebration--of being a reader and a writer. Not that there's not still plenty to be mad and scared about. Our national thirst for petroleum, which has already produced two Bush presidencies and an ugly Gulf War, is now threatening to lead us into an open-ended longterm conflict in Central Asia. Although you wouldn't have thought it possible, Americans seem to be asking even fewer questions about their government today than in 1991, and the major media sound even more monolithically jingoistic. While Congress yet again votes against applying easily achievable fuel-efficiency standards to SUVs, the president of Ford Motor Company can be seen patriotically defending these vehicles in a TV ad, avowing that Americans must never accept "boundaries of any kind." With so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily, I've chosen to do only minimal tinkering with the other essays in this book. "First City" reads a little differently without the World Trade Center; "Imperial Bedroom" was written before John Ashcroft came to power with his seeming indifference to personal liberties; anthrax has lent further poignancy to the woes of the United States Postal Service, as described in "Lost in the Mail"; and Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club makes the descriptive word "elitist" fluoresce in the several essays where it appears. But the local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone. [2002] Excerpted from How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

"A Word About This Book"
"My Father's Brain"
"Imperial Bedroom"
"Why Bother"
"Lost in the Mail"
"Erika Imports"
"Sifting the Ashes"
"A Reader in Exile"
"First City"
"Scavenging"
"Control Units"
"Mr. Difficult"
"Books in Bed"
"Meet Me in St. Louis"
"Inauguration Day, January 2001"