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How to Be Alone: Essays [Kindle Edition]

Jonathan Franzen
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Passionate, strong-minded nonfiction from the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections

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.

Editorial Reviews Review

Jonathan Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. Many of the 14 essays in How to Be Alone, by the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and elsewhere. A long, much-discussed rumination on the American novel, (newly) titled "Why Bother?," is included, as well as essays on privacy obsession, the U.S. post office, New York City, big tobacco, and new prisons. At his best, as in "My Father's Brain," a piece on his father's struggle with Alzheimer's, Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. But at times, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject, as he often takes both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity s! ometimes lead to obfuscation, especially in his essays on privacy and tobacco, although his belief that small-town America of years gone by offered the individual little privacy certainly rings true. Franzen can write with panache, as in this comment after he watched, without headphones, a TV show during a flight: "(It) became an exposé of the hydraulics of insincere smiles." A few of the shorter pieces appear to be filler. Franzen shines brightest when he gets edgy and a little angry, as in "The Reader in Exile": "Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data." --Mark Frutkin,

From Publishers Weekly

"In publishing circles, confessions of self doubt are widely referred to as `whining'-the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don't sell, ungracious in writers who do." This quote, taken from his Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream," and later reworked for this collection as "Why Bother," was written before Franzen tasted huge success with his bestselling novel The Corrections. Fans of that work will be intrigued by the elements from Franzen's personal life that run parallel to those of the characters in The Corrections. However, Franzen's adroit cultural criticism, albeit a personal one, is the root of this collection of essays. Hearing such subjective work read by the author himself adds an air of authenticity. It also satisfies a curiosity as to what that voice actually sounds like. This audiobook's editors satisfy that curiosity, but also make the wise choice of not letting Franzen read the entire collection. While his reading is sincere, his delivery, unlike his text, is passionless and dry. Fortunately, the lion's share of the essays is read with much more moxie by James. He gives these intelligent, thoughtful and provocative pieces more dramatic punch than Franzen can.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 410 KB
  • Print Length: 316 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0374173273
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Rev Exp edition (May 15, 2007)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,567 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
206 of 228 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Franzen doesn't deserve this much criticism... November 14, 2002
Well, I don't fully understand all of the criticism that is thrown Franzen's way. I really engaged with this book and found the essays interesting, well-written and thought-provoking. All-in-all, Franzen's insights into reading culture, writing, memory and American society were right on the money for me. I think those who don't like this book would be more at home with Newsweek and Time magazine and find USA Today sufficient for their daily news.
Criticism of Franzen as "elitist" is over-stated. If you, like I, are one of those "isolates" who starts reading early in life, you will likely find sympathy with Franzen's perspective as I did. I think "elitist" is a word thrown at those who read and think like Franzen by those who don't. I don't believe the book is elitist so much as representative of a different class of readers in American society who are a little more isolated from American consumer culture and generally find the consumer-driven, media-saturated, conformist version of America unsettling to say the least.
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122 of 136 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing Look At Contemporary Society! October 2, 2002
It is amusing and instructional when someone so far removed from the social sciences as this author obviously is makes the intriguing connection between the deadening aspects of the social surround and its effect on individual consciousness. What Franzen bemoans here is really the entire intellectual sweep of the materialistic culture we are embedded in, yet the individual characteristics he uses in the several essays included here in order to illustrate each of his well-taken points are better described as symptoms of the hollowness and lack of intellectual depth and meaning of most of our social artifacts and habits than as simply being problems in and of themselves. He hits the problem dead on when discussing the pandemic use of technology in the form of television, pop culture, and endless games and gadgetry in an attempt to stave off boredom and "entertain' ourselves. What we really are doing is what Aldous Huxley warned of so presciently in "Brave New World"; submerging ourselves in petty diversions and banal preoccupations, deadening ourselves to our environments and to the social world that would other act to engage us in some fashion.
Likewise, his discussion of how widespread use of "serotonin reuptake inhibitors" such as Prozac feeds into a general lack of awareness is quite thought-provoking. If pain, even mental anguish such as depression, can be thought of as a warning from the body that something is wrong, then the whole cultural approach now in vogue to anesthetize the pain is the functional equivalent of a denial of the pain, a quite deliberate attempt to paper it over and therefore disregard the important message it is sending to the individual that something is very wrong.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of the Artist December 26, 2002
I found this book thought provoking on many social dimensions, but I still wrestled with why it was published. (Cynical hypotheses, not particularly my own: milk the Corrections-cow a bit longer by publishing fast? Allow an obsessive author to edit past works?) Who knows. But one assertion can be made about this book with a fair measure of certainty: Franzen wants to be understood, both as a writer and as a human being. And these roles, it is important to note, are virtually isomorphic for Franzen. In writing about Alzheimer's or the prison system or cultural degradation, Franzen doesn't offer clear-eyed, journalistic observations that strive for balance and objectivity. Rather, he fuses social critique with personal perspective, infusing his own musings, grievances, and experiences. As he mourns the decline of serious reading, he might point to a real social phenomenon, but he clearly illustrates his individual (and probably deeper) fear of professional irrelevance. His derision of fussy female lingerie and how-to sex manuals intends to skewer the hokum threatening to infiltrate our sex lives, but it also whiffs a bit of sour grapes swallowed long ago by some smart, geeky, awkward youth who was probably a bit afraid of women. And other examples abound, as Franzen reveals liberally of his inner terrain, whether he intends to or not (I think he mostly intends to). Among other things in "How to Be Alone," we are witnessing creative writing as a powerful Rorschachian projective device: Tell me, author, what do you see when formless ink meets blank white page?
But, for me, this is the level at which the book works best. Franzen's (self) portrait of the impoverished, angst-ridden artist is a beguiling one. He salvages broken furniture from a trash heap...
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62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of the Artist Disengaged August 11, 2003
I admire Franzen's fiction. "The Corrections" in particular offered a scathing critique of the myths of family and meritocracy that govern contemporary life. As the Lambert family imploded, I winced and laughed and nodded as Franzen described a landscape both pitiful and familiar. Since his novels are so critical and affecting, I thought the essays in "How to Be Alone" would also be worthwhile. I was disappointed.
Franzen's critique lacks nuance. He puts "serious fiction" on a pedestal and uncritically glorifies the "reading life." Meanwhile, he adopts an effete stance in relation to all things mass/pop culture, essentially showing off about getting rid of his tv and situating himself in the context of Quentin Compson, not Seinfeld. Without irony, he bemoans the moment when movies became "films."
While arguing the distinction between high and low culture, Franzen reveals a loathing for anyone lacking his sense of taste and refinement: those unwashed masses who (gasp!) watch tv and listen to pop music.
He concludes that he's learned that being a writer, reader, and thinker means being alone. Not only *working* alone, but also living apart from the culture and adjusting an "oppositional" (a term Franzen seems to define in a particular way--more on that in a moment) stance.
I find this problematic. Yes, of course intellectuals must devote themselves to their work, spending long hours at the keyboard or in their reading chairs. And yes, writers ought to engage in "oppositional" thought--critiquing contemporary life (which Franzen does brilliantly in "The Corrections"), taking stances opposed to dominant thought with all its banality and oppressiveness.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intellectual of the People
Haven't finished reading all the essays in this book, but the few l read were superb and well worth the price of the book. Mr. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Bob Edelson
5.0 out of 5 stars Sebastián Bravo Montenegro
These essays gave me a glimpse into the controversial kind of Jonathan Franzen. Beautifully written and deep. It made me hate his public persona a little less 😄
Published 4 months ago by Sebastian Bravo
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant
Stimulating, refreshing, never boring. Lots of humour and still 13, no 8 words required. I have no more, why are stars not enough kindle?
Published 4 months ago by Kurt E.
4.0 out of 5 stars thoughtful but dated essays. I had to read them ...
thoughtful but dated essays. I had to read them for my English 101 class. Made you think, but it was standard hipster anti-technology theism.
Published 6 months ago by Brian Tabor
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 7 months ago by kendra
1.0 out of 5 stars I would put the title of this book down as ...
I would put the title of this book down as deceptive marketing. There is nothing in this collection of social commentaries that enlightens the reader on 'How to be alone'. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Rasika Harshey
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
I have never read anything like it. Constant whining.
I do recommend Freedom. A great story.
Published 7 months ago by Michael Hansson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Franzem is quintessence, that's All!
Published 7 months ago by Luiz Vasconcellos
4.0 out of 5 stars First Kindle Purchase!
I like how Franzen writes, though this is the only thing I've read from him. I've recommended these essays since. It's more investigative than I expected. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Justin Wollenberg
5.0 out of 5 stars Probing and Full of Insight
As I have come to expect from Mr. Franzen, his mind is entirely visible in his writing and that's a compliment. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Tom Hunter
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More About the Author

Jonathan Franzen is the author of three novels--The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion--and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.

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