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How to Be Alone: Essays


How to Be Alone: Essays Cover





MY THIRD NOVEL, The Corrections, which Id 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 Carraways 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 Harpers essay.” (Nobody used the original title, “Perchance to Dream,” that the magazines editors had given it.) Interviews typically began with the question: “In your Harpers 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 youve 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, Id taken the essay as an opportunity to renounce that variety of ambition. Because most interviewers hadnt 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, Id worked up a nice little corrective spiel that began, “No, actually, the Harpers 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 hadnt said in it. But when I opened the April 1996 Harpers 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 couldnt quite follow it. In the five years since Id written the essay, Id 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 dont read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesnt 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 Harpers essay was written from this place of anger and despair, in a tone of high theoretical dudgeon that made me cringe a little now.

Its true that, even in 1996, I intended the essay to document a stalled novelists 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. Im 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, Ive exercised my authorial license and cut the essay by a quarter and revised it throughout. (Ive also retitled it “Why Bother?”) Although its still very long, my hope is that its 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 Harpers 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 theres 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 wouldnt 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, Ive 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 Winfreys 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.


Product Details

Franzen, Jonathan
Picador USA
Regional, Ethnic, Genre, Specific Subject
General Literary Criticism & Collections
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.28 x 5.44 x 0.88 in

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How to Be Alone: Essays Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Picador USA - English 9780312422165 Reviews:
"Review" by , "These canny, well-researched essays...range over a variety of subjects...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."
"Review" by , "The other essays, most previously published in Details, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, deliver sufficient bang for the book, though none quite stands up to the centerpiece [Harper's essay]....Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many remaining admirers."
"Review" by , "The author makes himself a colorful presence throughout these essays....This collection emphasizes his elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist....He's funny, too....How to Be Alone is a captivating but uneven collection. Some of its entries have clearly aged better than others....The more recent entries, less showy about their brilliance, tend to flow more smoothly."
"Review" by , "I reached the limits of my tolerance for most essays about "the writer's life" long ago, but I've always got time for good writing about reading. The miscellaneous pieces in this collection are not exclusively on that subject — there are reported pieces on the Chicago post office, prisons and Franzen's father's death from Alzheimer's disease, as well — but the author of The Corrections has a respect for readers and a concern for the practice of reading that's surprisingly and lamentably rare among his colleagues....If the collection has any one theme, it's a very welcome one, on the value of privacy, of stretching out in the space inside one's own head and of not allowing your preoccupations to be dictated by the media's jangly siren song."
"Review" by , "As a nonfiction advocate for his one-man novelistic cause, Franzen doesn't ape the Norman Mailer of Advertisements for Myself and flaunt his ambition like a Popeye tattoo, muscling aside the competition to clear more legroom for himself in the first-class section. Nor does he try to blow up the rickety structures blocking his own fictional constructions, like Tom Wolfe in some of his broadsides. As with so many of his generation, Franzen is conflicted about conflict. Arguing is what grownups do when they are mad (Mommy, Daddy, don't fight); and swagger doesn't play well on the current scene, which has partly converted into a Generation X recovery ward for the depressed, medicated, and formerly addicted children of divorce. Rather than swinging from the heels, he hugs the ropes in these essays, taking all the pain, the indignity, and the bland indifference that a mass-media culture can inflict on a passionate bookworm. He is not a masochist, he is a shrewd passive-aggressive (aren't they all?), courting sympathy by constantly telling us where he hurts and fastening reader interest on himself, regardless of the issue or controversy. No matter what is flying around Franzen, the soft-focus lens is always on him."
"Synopsis" by , From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a collection of essays that reveal him to be one of the sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.
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