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Cannonball Read IV: How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

By rusha24 | Books | March 6, 2012 |

By rusha24 | Books | March 6, 2012 |

As a big fan of Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, particularly The Corrections and Freedom, I was happy to receive his book of essays How To Be Alone for christmas from a good friend. The dozen or so pieces are collected from his previously published work in places like The New Yorker and Harper’s, most of them from the mid 90s. This time-frame is evident in a present reading of the book, as some of the essays have held up better than others. He hits the same subjects over and over-television’s assault on our imagination, technological encroachment on our human psyches, essentially, how to survive as a reader or writer in a ubiquitous cyber culture-and while he succeeds more often than not, Franzen too frequently comes off sounding downright solipsistic. Which is understandable, considering this is first-person journalism, but it runs the risk of smugness-the very critique his fiction most frequently draws. The bottom line however, is that Franzen can fucking write, and his dazzling prose and often profound insights into the preservation of a colony of readers and writers are worth the read, perhaps now more than ever.

Franzen is at his best in this collection when he’s most personal. Probably intentionally, the piece that opens the book is "My Father’s Brain," a very intimate and moving portrait of Franzen’s father’s descent at the hands of Alzheimer’s. Around the central story, a son’s retelling of his father’s fight for dignity, Franzen manages to weave in musings on memory, on parents, on the struggle to retain one’s self in the face of dementia. Contrasted to this type of personal vulnerability, the essays on Chicago’s postal service and the evolution of America’s big cities read as book reports-sharp, witty, and critically aware, but somehow less compelling.

The longest piece is titled "Why Bother?"-a new name for a famously talked-about essay originally known as "The Harper’s Essay," in which Franzen essentially assessed the health and prognosis of the American Novel. Appearing in this collection significantly cut and edited, the essay is still just as provocative as the first time around. While he so passionately attacks social atomization via cyber culture and admirably argues for the preservation of genuine community through reading, Franzen’s own position within the canon he desperately wishes to preserve makes it hard to take what he says completely at face value. Similarly, in a deeply personal essay about maintaining privacy, he sometimes seems contradictory. But throughout the book, Franzen’s voice is exhilarating in its plea for our engagement in social criticism. To some, he’ll reek of elitism, but it’s a risk worth taking if it compels you to think about what it means to be a reader in today’s world.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of rusha24’s reviews on the group blog.

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