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138 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing Look At Contemporary Society!, October 2, 2002
This review is from: How to Be Alone: Essays (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. By treating depression as a simple medical problem that can be medicated away as easily as athlete's foot, any hope of using the pain as a starting point for the very necessary discovery process through which one might learn what was wrong and what needed to be done to correct it is gone. In essence, doctors now simply `treat' depression by medicating the symptoms out of existence, without any regard for the very serious questions such physical and emotional manifestations of pain and discomfort may mean for the overall health and well being of the patient. Under such circumstances, the doctors are no different from a guy selling shiny new sports cars to middle aged guys like me, who want a boost out of life and are willing to pay to get it. Oops! Time to take my Zoloft and feel better.
Each of the essays make the reader think, and that is the single highest compliment anyone can make about anyone's writing. I may not agree with what Franzen has to say in each case, but I enjoyed his open attitude and his keen sense that something is amiss in a nation so addicted to Oprah and easy answers that he has to stand back and say "Enough!" His criticisms of the current academic fashion of political correctness are especially interesting, as they show the absurd ways in which even the academics have "dumbed themselves down" to accept such superficial tripe as being the gospel. His notice of the fat that more and more Americans seem to becoming frightened, lonely, and isolated recalls similar observations made by social critics like Philip Slater long ago in a tome called "Pursuit Of Loneliness; American Culture At The Breaking Point" (see my review). This is an absorbing, bright, and intriguing attempt to ask some honest and penetrating questions, and while I may not agree with what he argues or with his conclusions, it is a wonderful book that raises one's intellectual curiosity and one's self-awareness in terms of how easily it is for each of us to slip into the burgeoning cultural habits he so cleverly exposes. Enjoy!
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Barron Laycock
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   

Location: Temple, New Hampshire United States

Top Reviewer Ranking: 108,209