Derek's Reviews > How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
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's review
Apr 17, 2012

really liked it

Oh, Jonathan Franzen---can he do no wrong? How to Be Alone: Essays, while perhaps not as essential as The Corrections in my estimation, is still full of insight and nuance and the customary Franzenian sentence-level fireworks; much of it is essential reading for those of us interested in literature's (arguably diminishing) place in society.

Of course, not all of this is going to be fascinating. I could give a hoot about the Chicago postal service circa nineteen-ninety-whatever, nor do I feel I have much to gain from reading about the Colorado penitentiary system, even though I live an hour or so from the places described. But when he's writing on a subject I care deeply about (and many of these essays are about subjects I care deeply about), few authors can capture the exigence of his subject with the vigor that Franzen does. I read "My Father's Brain," his essay on his father's struggle with Alzheimer's, on the very day that my grandmother was buried after her own seven-year struggle with the disease. Though Franzen's insights are probably more useful to a son/daughter coming to terms with a parent's illness, it still proved enlightening for a grandson as well, and I was glad that he presented it as unflinchingly as he did.

But overly personal connections aside, so much of what Franzen outlines here are sentiments that I find myself agreeing with emphatically, either because I'm predisposed to or because he's a fine rhetorician. His trepidation in regards to technology (and the techno-consumerism that attends the apparent lack of trepidation from pretty much everyone else), his concern over privacy's weirdly simultaneous waxing and waning, even his discomfort with the "industry" of sexualization: more often than not, I find myself on Franzen's side of things. Perhaps the most urgent essay here, "Mr. Difficult," in which he outlines his perspective on challenging fiction (using William Gaddis as the focus for this discussion), works because he's unsparing in his criticism, especially when he has his guns turned 180 degrees; the work here towers over any Ben Marcus response you can throw at it.

Like so many collections, what appears here is a bit uneven, but sifting through clunky or uninteresting essays (and they are decidedly in the minority) is well worth the rewards of reading Franzen's essays that work particularly well.

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