How to be Alone : essays

by Jonathan Franzen

Hardcover, 2002




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.


The author of The Corrections reprints his 1996, "The Harper's Essay," offering additional writings that consider a central theme of the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the increasing persistence of loneliness in postmodern America.

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 3* of five

The Book Description: 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.

My Review: "Why Bother?" or, more familiarly "The Harper's Essay," is the most famous piece in the collection, and probably the most read. I think it's a nice meditation on the nature of reading and writing, and the changes these two things have been through, but it's not (to me) earth-shatteringly amazing. I've been thinking many of the same thoughts for a long time, being both a modeled and a social-isolate reader (the essay gives definitions for these terms, and you should read the text anyway. Wikipedia links to a PDF of it).

That doesn't mean the essay is less valuable, merely makes the point that I, and presumably others like me, don't feel its novelty. For others to whom the ideas are new, this could gong them like a bell. I wonder if those folks are among Franzen's readers, though. I still think Tetris is a cool video game, so how likely am I to be seeking out BioShock X or whatever? My sense of novelty, then, isn't about texts or their creators and/or the act of their creation, it's about the successors to the book and the ethos they create.

But the essay is, like the entire collection, a little bit less than fully coherent. Franzen doesn't so much organize his points around his thoughts as his thoughts around his points. The bits about his marital breakdown, the portions mentioning his teaching job, the revision-points about the Oprah kerfuffle after The Corrections got him into such trouble...all placed here and there, all called upon to do multiple duty and yet never seeming to be the mainstay of any one argument. Why then invoke them at all? I didn't feel the added weight of support in many of Franzen's passing mentions and glancing blows.

"My Father's Brain," on the other hand, was a fine and personal piece of wrestling, and a very involving and moving look at the nature of a time and a space in an adult man's life: The end of a parent's life is fraught for us all, and the ending of the life before the parent's actual death is the hardest thing to process.

Alzheimer's and other dementias are deeply frightening to me, and I suspect to most of us. Franzen reports from the front lines that it's a lot less terrifying than one might imagine, and even more heartrending. This essay is responsible for all three stars I've given the collection all by itself. I like the author a great deal more than I did after reading The Corrections, which I found repetitive rather than recursive, and ~100pp of Freedom, which for some reason I can't quite understand made me angry. The son who wrote "My Father's Brain" is a guy I want to have a beer with, talk about the pessimism-inducing world we fifty-plus social isolates live in, and see if we can't hash out some reason not to despair.

The other essays are well-written pieces about things I wasn't interested in, and ended up not meaning anything to me on a visceral level. Just, well, yeah okay that's nice, but what the devil should I care?

It's very much a library-borrow, and really not something I'll urge you to get out there and procure no matter the source. As usual for me as regards this writer, I don't leave this read eagerly awaiting the next one by him.
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LibraryThing member figre
The longest essay in this collection is “Why Bother?” Originally titled “Perchance to Dream”, the author has subtitled it “The Harper’s Essay”. In the introduction to this collection (“A Word About This Book”), the author goes on at great length about the impact of this article, how it was misunderstood, and how, when he reread and discovered it was painfully strident and contained tenuous logic that even he couldn’t follow, he “exercised my authorial license and cut the essay by a quarter and revised it throughout.”

I do not fault an author for looking back on past efforts and bringing them up to their new personal snuff. But using this admission – in particular the isolation of a single essay – to lead off a collection does not portend good things. In his essay titled “Scavenging”, eleven pages in, the author starts a new section “So ends the fragment of essay that I’ve scavenged in assembling this one.” And so it goes.

Herein is a collection of essays that seem to have something to say, but the author winds, starts, stops, pontificates, preaches, sidebars, sidetracks, and meanders at such length that even interesting topics suffer. Example #1: The potential for a fascinating essay exists in “Lost in the Mail”, a study of things going wrong with the Chicago mail system. There are great stories here about the people trying to get the right things done. There are disturbing instances of abuses and “things that go wrong.” Yet, the essay has no appreciable point. Is this about the people, is it about the city, is it about the problems themselves? The author meanders rather than trying to get to any one point. Example #2: “Controlling Units” is about maximum security prisons in Colorado. Again, there is good information and interesting stories in this essay. But the author becomes too present, preaching and telling rather than letting his writing explain it for us.

There are just too many essays here that come close, but fall short. And then there are the essays that just don’t have anything going for them. Overall assessment? Franzen has titled this Book How to Be Alone. The answer? Write essays like these.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
I've had this book of essays and articles on my shelf for some time, and picked it up when a book funk was looming. Franzen presents 15 essays of varying length and on a wide variety of topics, some very personal, some more the type you might encounter in a magazine like the one in the Sunday New York Times or the New Yorker.

The personal ones are often quite affecting, in particular the first, "My Father's Brain", which concerns the difficulty he and his family had dealing with his father's mental deterioration, especially in light of his parents' difficult marriage, and the last, where he is forced to 'go home again' years later for a televised interview and finds it torture.

"Imperial Bedroom" is Franzen's take on the conventional cry that our privacy is evaporating. Almost perversely, he notes that most of us live in ever MORE private spaces - large suburban houses where no one has to share a room or bathroom, or condominium apartments where you might not know your neighbors, quite unlike what he calls the near-panopticon of small town life a century ago. Conversely, we are unable to keep other people's private lives out of our public space. "A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted." Anyone who can't help overhearing a personal, sometimes very personal, cellphone conversation on the street, but or train can relate.

"Why Bother" is the most well-known of these works, retitled from an infamous Harper's essay. In it, Franzen details his slide into depression while trying to write his third book, while he and his wife were separating and the country was preparing for war in 1991, and in the years that followed. His despair at the reading habits (or lack thereof) of Americans , the solitary nature of his profession, and the idea that fiction should deal with 'mystery', "how human beings avoid or confront the meaning of existence" and 'manners', "the nuts and bolts of how human beings behave" was being somehow scuttled, produced a perfectly understandable (to me) inability to write his third novel. But beyond blaming all the ills of our age for the ills of our age, he talks about who reads and who writes. He cites Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and English Professor, to discover that the people who read 'works of substance' are either people whose (usually upper class) parents did the same, and long for others who share their passion, or people who were, from an early age, social isolates, who use books to build their longed-for imaginary community.

Well, I guess that sounds like a lot of us. Franzen goes on at some length about how he was able to absorb this, how he realized that he didn't have to save the world with his writing, how he got support from Don DeLillo - and how he finished his third novel, The Corrections, which I found difficult and ultimately totally human. It's a really interesting essay.

What else? Essays on the beleaguered Chicago Post Office, the amoral tobacco industry, the architecture that creates city life, the development of ultra-maximum security prisons, the deliberate difficulties of William Gaddis's writings, sex, and the essay that gives the book its title, wherein he argues that television and other popular entertainment have left us without the ability to be alone that reading teaches us to master.

All of which is to say that I devoured this book of essays, it cured my book funk, I marked up all sorts of passages (which I never do), and I hope someone else loves it too.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Until recently, I'd pointedly avoided Jonathan Franzen. I know "The Corrections" sold about a gazillion copies, but I'd pegged him, perhaps unfairly, as a purveyor of "New Yorker" fiction. By "New Yorker" fiction I mean stories about quietly anguished lives of well-off suburban white people where brand names are used in place of genuine characterization and the "spiritual wasteland" of the exurbs is the work's real main character. Oh, God, that's stuff's death on the page.

Still, I inherited a copy of "How to Be Alone" and liked Franzen's "Harper's Essay." When I finally got around to delving deeper into this collection, I was very pleasantly surprised. Franzen's got a sharp, economical journalistic eye, a spare, fluid style, and perhaps best of all, a genuine love of literature and writing that fairly leaps at his reader. He's serious about what he does and good at getting at the very heart of things. Reading "How to Be Alone" feels like taking a leisurely walk around the author's mind, and that's perhaps the best compliment I can give an essay collection.

Of course, Franzen is always going to be known as The Author Who Turned Down Oprah Winfrey, and we, as readers, can't really get away from that. Is Franzen the the high-culture snob that so many people made him out to be in the wake of that mini-scandal? I don't think so. He's got the inevitable elitism of someone who's dedicated his life to art, and he's careful, perhaps even too careful, about how his art is presented to the marketplace. Still, one man's elitism is another man's discernment and Franzen, I think, falls on the right side of the line. There's something of a gentle crankiness about him, and readers who do not agree with his basic premises, namely that technological capitalism is an infernal machine, that reading is important, and that technology can often alienate its users, may have trouble spending time with him. What he's not, however, traditional high-culture type. He seems to feel very much at home in an imagined "community of readers" that extends far beyond the academy. He pleads, at various points throughout this book, for literature that's both emotionally accessible and artistically uncompromising. He seems to worry more about the emotional content of the writing he likes than the ideologies it describes. In the way he privileges stories over stylistic excess , he comes darn close to being a literary populist. I'm happy to say that the rumors of Mr. Franzen's unbearable elitism have been greatly exaggerated and that I can recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member bordercollie
The great novelist is also a great essayist. Here are some of the most interesting, stimulating, well-written essays ever, on Alzheimer's, the post office, sex, why he didn't become an Oprah author…
LibraryThing member atyson
Beautifully written collection of essays using a variety of starting points (his father's Alzheimers disease, maximum security prisons) to explore the distinction between public and private space. In this respect the work reminds me of Richard Sennett's urban(ist) essays which I also enjoyed. His observations on the role of novelist in contemporary society are unflinching and illuminating.… (more)
LibraryThing member dtn620
This book of essays was quite entertaining. I found the essays about subjects other than the state of literature to be the most entertaining. Some of the essays are from the 90s and reflect the sensibilities and uncertainty of how technology and the internet will develop and affect our lives. I did get bored with the essays on the state of literature. The first one was decent but the other two felt sort of rehashed. Perhaps this is the case because of their age of the essays and the fact I have read other more recent and similar essays.

When Franzen is "on" he is definitely "on". The essay on Alzheimer's and his fathers decline was endearing and heartbreaking, the essays on the colorado prisons and the mail problems in chicago were both enlightening and highly entertaining.

This was enjoyable to read straight through but I also feel that it would be a good book to read off and on depending on your mood.
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LibraryThing member cliffagogo
Franzen, author of the massively popular The Corrections, sets out his stall on subjects of writing, politics, and personal freedom. This collection of previously published magazine pieces is a mixed bag, but on the whole a satisfying read. The standout article on his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease is touching and personal, and acutely shows his strengths as a writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member Mathew
I think I've fallen in Love with Jonathan Franzen after reading this book.
LibraryThing member librarybrandy
I really do love Franzen's writing, but this collection didn't wow me. Many of the essays here aren't so much essays as articles; they read more like journalistic explorations of entities (prisons, post office corruption) rather than personal explorations of thoughts or concepts. He has some really interesting points, though many of them get bogged down in academia.

My larger concern, though, is how dated many of these essays seem to be. The most recent in the collection was 2002--not a fault of the collection, which came out shortly after that--but it's surprising that these don't hold up over time. Reading this in 2008 makes some of his late-'90s references sound anachronistic, though I'm sure they were just fine at the time.

I feel a mild disappointment, but it's not the fault of the book. Had I read it five, six years ago, I may have enjoyed it more.

Sidenote: what's Franzen been doing since The Corrections, besides showing up on The Simpsons? Doesn't he know I want to see another novel from him?
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LibraryThing member witchyrichy
I got bogged down a bit in the Jonathan Franzen essays. I read and enjoyed The Corrections but haven't gotten to Purity: A Novel yet. Franzen was suitably grouchy about the modern world with its desire for easy reads and fascination with sex scandals. But he can also be self deprecating when he reveals his own preference for popular novels. The most powerful essay for me was a description of new maximum security prisons in which inmates are completely isolated. Franzen lays out the fundamental racism in the system as well as the way prisons deceive the local communities where they build the facilities.

The essays take on the cigarette industry, the postal service, and his father's Alzheimer's. I prefer Franzen when he writes personally. The book includes his famous Harper's Essay, edited and renamed, and I found it long and whiny. Even Franzen acknowledges that he was an angry writer when he produced the essay, someone he doesn't recognize when he revisited the essay for the anthology.
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LibraryThing member jimocracy
In all fairness, this book wasn't what I had expected it to be. But it was still very hard to get through because it was pretentious and boring and lacking in any real human insight that I would find relevant. I can see why this author's previous work made it onto Oprah's book list; that's right where he deserves to be.
LibraryThing member gregorybrown
I'm very sympathetic to his concerns w/r/t fiction, so that part of the book was actually interesting and quite neat. And his Alzheimer's essay is astonishingly good. But that said, the book is saddled with many just-OK essays. I just couldn't get excited about it past the first few chapters.
LibraryThing member Paul_S
It's therapy for the author and for the readers. There aren't fewer readers; there are more readers (in absolute numbers). It's the proportion of writers to readers and the forms they use. No, you can't stop it. You can't ban other media which have taken away what the author wanted to keep in a book format. Yet this mishmash of essays proves that a book is not ideal for what he wants to write. Keep writing, there is an infinite number of possible readers in the future - should your work prove valuable to them. But contemporary journalism and short opinion pieces have found better outlets.
Indulging yourself with fashion statements like old rotary phones and CRT TVs (or lack thereof) is not a form of martyrdom, it's just being childishly contrary.
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LibraryThing member sarcher
I haven't read any of Franzen's work before this book. I found most of the essays to be meandering news summaries ("Lost in the Mail" "Control Units") or book reports ("First City" "Mr Difficult"). Hard to understand the draw. However, to be transparent, the limpness of the content meant l did a bunch of quick page turning. I did like the partitioning of letter writers into "refiners, resonators, and rebutters."… (more)
LibraryThing member wrk1
About "Why Bother?": Like sitting at a cafe listening to a depressed cynic whose intelligence and style keep you there, despite the sinking feeling in your heart and knowing that this guy should step outside of himself now and then.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Set of melancholic essays about the nature of American society in the early 2000s. Some are relevant, but some are out of date and seem to be written for Luddites, who fear any technology.




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