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How to be Alone [Hardcover]

Jonathan Franzen
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 Oct 2002

Passionate, independent-minded nonfiction from the international bestselling author of THE CORRECTIONS.

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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (7 Oct 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007147252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007147250
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.4 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 714,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959 and graduated from Swarthmore College. He has lived in Boston, Spain, New York, Colorado Springs and Philadelphia. His other novels are 'The Twenty-Seventh City', 'Strong Motion', and 'The Corrections'. He is also the author of 'How To Be Alone', a collection of non-fiction, and 'The Discomfort Zone', a memoir. His fiction and non-fiction appear frequently in the 'New Yorker' and 'Harper's', and he was named one of the best American novelists under forty by 'Granta' and the 'New Yorker'. He lives in New York City.

Product Description

Amazon Review

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 Brown



• 'Compelling. A pleasure from beginning to end. Franzen, in one leap, has put himself into the league of Updike & Roth. That's why there is so much excitement about it.'

• 'A novel of outstanding sympathy, wit, moral intelligence and pathos, a family saga told with stylistic brio and psychological and political insight. No British novelist is currently writing at this pitch.'

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tragic realism 19 Nov 2004
I really struggled with The Corrections, repeatedly described as the most remarkable novel of our century to date. And reports of Franzen's snooty sounding behaviour to Oprah Winfrey didn't send me rushing to his other work either. Luckily I came across a reprint of Franzen's famous 1996 "Harper's Essay" when I had nothing else to read, and everything changed. That essay is reprinted here, with fourteen others, equally provocative, densely yet lucidly written, and all with a quite unexpected layer of humour, wit and self-deprecation.
Although the essays cover a wide range of subjects, from a surprisingly gripping forty page account of the chaos facing Chicago's postal service, through to a very moving piece on his father's decline into Alzheimer's disease, Franzen underpins them all with his central concern - the status of contemporary fiction and the lives of those who need it, in a postmodern, mass media saturated world.
For those of us who immediately recognise Franzen's experience of reading and/or writing as a means of reaching inward for a way out of loneliness, the modern world can be a very hard place to inhabit. Again and again he returns to the fragility of any community of readers and writers, the decline of the social novel, the rise of what he calls the tyranny of the literal. No longer simply finding it "apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read Henry James", Franzen moves on to examine some disturbing possible reasons for the ascendance of what he calls "technological consumerism" at the expense of personal integrity and dignity.
One particularly unsettling suggestion is that "the average man or woman's entire life is increasingly structured to avoid the kinds of conflicts on which fiction . .
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understated erudition 16 Sep 2009
By Eileen Shaw TOP 1000 REVIEWER
A collection of essays by this writer - well worth reading for his understated erudition and empathetic insight, as well as the entertaining things he has to say. I laughed out loud as he demolished the sex book industry - Dr Ruth, Dr Betty and all - while his "state of the novel" essay is outstandingly discerning and penetrating. He also takes time to describe what happened when his novel The Corrections was chosen by Oprah Whinfrey as her book of the month and later dropped when the author didn't fit in with her schmaltzy plans for its hype. Strange also, to be enjoying a description of the Chicago postal system's breakdown and the corruption at its heart.

Quite simply, he is one of a group of very few writers in this world who can write almost anything and give the reader such a truthful, objective and entertaining insight that the subject matter is opened out like a route to understanding. This is an excellent read from one of the major writers of his generation.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Readers of the world unite 30 Aug 2005
By A Customer
"Densely written" is right - you're not going to whistle through this, it's one of those books in which sentences and paragraphs have to be read and re-read to grasp their meaning, and which once understood have to be framed in the context of the argument.
But it's worth the perserverence as these essays are extraordinary inciteful, of value as much for the individual reflections they'll trigger in the reader, as for the arguments Franzen himself puts forward.
It's a call to arms for a personal, private revolution; for a quiet, polite, unobstrusive, individual, almost invisible resistance to the overwhelming invasions of contemporary life, one you may already be part of, one unlikely to gain many converts, but one that fundamentally challenges the bankruptcy of that which it opposses, and in which one's fellow travellers are instantly recognisable.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a book of miscellaneous essays 4 Jan 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A book of miscellaneous essays written betwen 1995 and 2002.

Some essays cover Franzen's life, including an excellent first essay about his father's decline and death from Alzheimer's. These are a foretaste of Franzen's excellent memoir the Discomfort Zone.

Some essays cover the themes of writing novels and reading them. About these I would say that Franzen only gradually sketches out an interesting and coherent position - the 2002 essay about William Gaddis is reflective, persuasive and entirely coherent. In the Foreword, Franzen says he made substantial cuts to one of the earlier essays on this theme - he could see with the benefit of hindsight that the argument wasn't clear and the tone was ranting. I would say that this remained true of that essay even it is edited form...but it does have interest, as you can see Franzen struggle towards a theoretical position that supports the kind of novel that he would like to write - and that he has certainly since written.

A third group of essays cover topics such as the Chicago Post Office and its shortcomings; and maxmimum security prisons in the US...Maximum security prisoners may need to learn how to be alone, in that they are mostly in continuous solitary confinement, but the thematic links here to the first two groups of essays are forced or obscure. And ater reading Franzen's essay Lost In the Post, I've learned that I'm just not THAT interested in the shortcoming of the Chicago Post Office in and of itself...
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