Jonathan Franzen's ‘Freedom’ was the literary sensation of 2010, whilst ‘The Corrections’ was the best-loved and most written-about novel the previous decade. ‘How to be Alone’, is a collection of the personal essays and painstaking, often humorous reportage that have earned Franzen a wide and loyal readership, including what has come to be known as 'The Harper's Essay', Franzen's controversial 1996 look at the fate of the novel. From the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, from his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease to a rueful account of Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author, each piece wrestles with Franzen's familiar themes: the erosion of civic life and private dignity, and the hidden persistence of loneliness, in postmodern imperial America.
These collected 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.' They voice a 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 the sharpest, toughest-minded, and most entertaining social critics at work today.
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Novelist Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone is a collection of 14 essays that take the preservation of individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture as its main theme. Franzen sees himself, rightly, as one of a dying breed of reader/writers coming to terms with the fact that his world (or at least his audience) is shrinking and struggles with the temptation to give in to the techno world for the sake of health and happiness. We're told that "individuality and complexity" is the main theme but in truth the book is much more interesting than it sounds.
The opening essay entitled "My Father's Brain" is a fascinating and deeply poignant story about Alzheimer's disease that begins with a letter--sent by his mother--containing the autopsy of his father's brain. Instead of a self-regarding piece of "feel-my-pain" sentimentality Franzen describes in minute detail the mechanics of the disease itself, the history of its discovery and its effect on his father's personality and behaviour. It's also about the history of a marriage; a reflection on our need to think of ourselves and our loved ones as a distinct personality and the corresponding need to resist the idea--suggested to us by the progress of the disease--that personality is the function of a lump of grey meat: the brain. It ends with Franzen's post-humous discovery of his father's letters that reveal his secret attempt to stay in the light through force of will.
Besides marriage, memory, disease and death, Franzen also deals with subjects as different as smoking, the sex-advice industry, the workings of maximum security prisons, the fall of the Chicago Mail service and his brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author. The collection also includes a revised version of the famously misunderstood "Harper's Essay"--Franzen's 1996 look at the fate of the novel. Those expecting a series of naval-gazing, deadly earnest essays from a snobbish elitist who turns his nose up at popular culture and the benefits of electronic communication should think again. What's refreshing and unusual about these essays is that they are serious, funny, poignant, unpredictable and unashamedly elitist--but not in the way you might expect. --Larry BrownReview:
Of maximum-security prisons, Dumpster diving, and privacy in a technological age: a collection of essays diverse and entertaining by the author of last year's Big Novel, The Corrections. Before The Corrections, which led circuitously to "Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club," Franzen was perhaps best known to general readers as the author of an arch, funny, and contrarian essay recounting the reasons for his "despair of the American novel," published in Harper's and thus known among the cognoscenti simply as "the Harper's essay." Revised to be still more arch and no less contrarian, if somewhat less lit-critical, the essay (now called "Why Bother?") is reason enough to fiction lovers in this increasingly "infantilizing" culture to take Franzen's nonfiction out for a spin, though it won't please the academic readers it relentlessly twits in salutary slaps such as: "The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical work from the Dark Ages before 1950) and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World ("the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures"). The other essays, most previously published in Details, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, deliver sufficient bang for the book, though none quite stands up to the centerpiece. Some of them, such as a perceptive study of the Post Office at work, manage to be quite timely even as they bear a few signs of age; others get a little weird, as when Franzen observes that smoking cigarettes serves, at least in his case, "to become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with the contours of its terrors, to make the world's potential death less strange and so a little less threatening." None, however, is predictable, and all bear Franzen's trademark sensibility of smiling, even though scared silly, in the face of doom. Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many remaining admirers. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Book Description 4th Estate, 2002. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 7152574