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How to Be Alone: Essays Paperback – October 1, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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, Amazon.ca --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Rev Exp edition (October 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312422164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312422165
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Smith on November 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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