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How to Be Alone

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  10,959 ratings  ·  898 reviews
From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a collection of essays that reveal him to be one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics

While the essays in this collection range in subject matter from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each one wrestles with the essential themes of Franzen's writing: the eros
Paperback, 306 pages
Published October 1st 2003 by Picador (first published October 1st 2002)
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Average rating 3.59  · 
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(B) 75% | More than Satisfactory
Notes: A scrapbook patchwork of previously published prose, lucid though largely forgettable, and expectedly hit and miss.
Aug 20, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: elderly techno-phobes
Ok, Jonathan Franzen. WE GET IT. You're a martyr for truth and beauty and all that is good because you read books and don't like technology and smoke cigarettes and still use a rotary telephone. You are a superior human being because you don't watch t.v. You could've said that all in one paragraph, but you chose to do it in 300 palpably crotchety, Andy Rooney-esque pages. As Shruti rightly pointed out, it is surprisingly refreshing to read an author who annoys the shit out of you, especially wit ...more
Oct 10, 2007 added it
A girlfriend took this with her after we broke up (along with many, many other books of mine). So I guess she did a far better job of teaching me how to be alone than Mr. Franzen ever could.
Glenn Sumi
Apr 12, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
How To Be Alone – a.k.a., How To Make Some Quick Cash Between Novels

Full disclosure: I love Jonathan Franzen, novelist. The Corrections and Freedom are two of my favourite novels written in the past couple of decades. And I can’t wait to read his new book, out this fall.

But that’s Novelist Franzen. Do I really need to read Essayist Franzen? Especially when his prose is often fussy, whiny and awkward?

Here are two random passages from his uneven 2002 collection, How To Be Alone (take a deeeeep br
Jul 11, 2010 added it
Richard Derus
This review has been revised and can now be found at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud! I wish the title was more prophetic. ...more
MJ Nicholls
Oct 03, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: merkins, non-fiction
Franzen hits the target when literature is being discussed. The career-making accidental cri de coeur ‘Why Bother?’ and ‘The Reader in Exile’ and the Gaddis love-in-cum-demolition ‘Mr. Difficult’ are all sublime pieces, if a little uncertain. The more reflective, personal essays show Franzen’s likeable man-on-the-street intellectualism, especially the Alzheimer’s piece ‘My Father’s Brain’ and the hilarious Oprah-era insight ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ He is less successful when broadsheet feature wr ...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Perchance to Bother

This isn’t so much a review of the collection of essays called "How to Be Alone", but some responses to one of the essays, "Why Bother?" (also known as "The Harpers Essay" or "Perchance to Dream").

I’ve probably read the essay in one form or another half-a-dozen times since it was first published in 1996. I have to admit that each time the experience has become less satisfactory.

The essay is 42 pages long. Franzen cut about 25% of the Harper’s Essay and changed its name.

Aug 24, 2007 rated it did not like it
to describe my objection to this book of essays i'm going to use a word that i don't quite understand in this context but that feels correct to me somehow: generous. these essays aren't very generous. i'd imagine they were cathartic to write. they certainly do a good job of demonstrating the author's intelligence. but in essay after essay, i found myself waiting for the part where i'd find out why i was supposed to give a fudge about what i was reading. to choose one example that crops up over a ...more
Nov 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
So Jonathan Franzen doesn't know I exist and couldn't possibly have written this just to show up as confirmation during a week when I needed exactly this sort of confirmation, right? So it just felt that way.

Also it could be the title attracted me because cultivating the sort of isolation required for reading and writing does mean being a little dangerously far from the herd and I am ambivalent about it, just as I have an odd little relationship with goodreads because it's a way of not being alo
A lot of people bitch about Jonathan Franzen, and probably with good reason. Especially in a nation in which mainstream aesthetic values have become conflated with democracy (facepalm), he's viewed as an out-of-touch elitist, an academic leftist, who-- unlike other academic leftists-- actually winds up on bestseller lists, and thus forces his opinions into the national conversation. In fact, he's one of the few American writers today who actually seems willing to challenge the status quo, and fu ...more
Mar 24, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I am sorry to say that this particular collection of essays turned out to be utterly boring. The only two of them, that are interesting are Why Bother? (a marvelous musings of Franzen over the importance of the novel and the reading as a whole as well as about the lesser interest towards literature in the modern world) and Meet Me at Saint Louis (you will learn the story of Franzen and Oprah`s dispute, how he was invited to be part of her book club with The Corrections and then uninvited because ...more
Feb 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
No offense to Jonathan Franzen—whose novels I’ve not yet read—but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this collection of his essays. Surprised because many of them were written more than twenty years ago and are about subjects that I’m completely unfamiliar with. Who’d have thought than an essay about the Chicago Post Office (“Lost in the Mail,” 1994), for example, or the (hitherto unknown to me) American novelist William Gaddis (“Mr. Difficult,” 2002) would be so interesting?

As an ex-smoker I
Jul 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: eyeopening
Franzen is somewhat dark, but in a real world, plain in front of you real and dark. I like his explanations, his inclusion of family and his truthfulness. Perhaps his explanations are a mirror for me, but I had read a few of these essays before they appeared in this book. He is worth the poke of prod and read. He is infinitely human, and his work is readable, and ultimately, human in its dimension of honesty. I find it lovable and laudable, in that, he worries about readers understanding his wri ...more
Jan 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
The piece on his father's Alzheimer's disease alone is worth the four stars. ...more
Jan 23, 2021 rated it liked it
Originally published over at my blog, The Grimoire Reliquary.

Whatever you say about Jonathan Franzen (and there’s plenty to say, no small amount of it critical), you can’t deny the man his insight. He’s a fine writer, as this collection of republished essays proves; though they all originate in the 90s and very early 2000s, few come across as dated; the topics Franzen addresses continue toi bear relevance, twenty, thirty years on. Most of them, anyway.

Like most essay collections, How To Be Alone
Apr 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The answer is books!
Oct 05, 2010 rated it did not like it
This book sounded interesting, but when it comes down to it, Jonathan Franzen's personality keeps getting in the way. He's got a pole up his ass, and he's so damned full of himself. Anything interesting he might have to say is mitigated by the annoyance caused by hearing his persnickety voice in my head. I might agree with some of his ideas if agreeing with him didn't make me feel somehow dirty. ...more
Nov 11, 2010 rated it liked it
Franzen, we know you've been busy writing the Great American Novel and all, but you are overdue for a new collection of essays that embraces (or at least nods towards) the 21st century. Several of these essays claim a date somewhere in the 90's, but I swear his ode to rotary phones could be decades older. Has he not been introduced to the cell phone? He speaks of Touch-Tones as cutting edge communication devices. In 1995 he gave away a television that appears to have doubled as side table; how l ...more
Dec 19, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: boring magazine enthusiasts
I should preface this by saying that I don't really like books that are just repackaged essays or features from magazines, and if I'd been aware that that's what this was, I might not have been so eager to read it. As it was, I'd just finished reading 'The Corrections' and wanted to get my hands on anything Franzen related as soon as possible. This book slowed that urge to a screeching halt.

It's not as if Franzen is a bad writer. Far from it. He's amazingly smart and talented, and surprisingly h
Feb 22, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
The thing that I like about this book is that it's written by a fellow curmudgeon who likes to complain about the current state the world. Hey! I like to do that too! For most of the book Mr. Franzen bemoans the decline of the literary novel, the wastefulness of modern society, the miserly plight of the working author, the degeneration of culture and the questionable morality of the criminal justice system. He complains a lot.

But Mr. Franzen's complaints are not like my complaints. That's to say
Dec 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
There are thirteen essays making up this collection and though the theme is consistent - solitude, isolation, independence - the range is still broad and comprises topics as varied as writing, dementia, the prison system, city development etc. To me they all hold up very well with the exception of Lost in the Mail (about the postal system in Chicago; an excruciatingly dull subject and expose although I understand it's really about the breakdown of public society) and Erika Imports (too short to ...more
Aug 27, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: anyone with an hour to kill
He is a fairly pompous writer. I will start with that because it's important to know the tone from which you will be inflicted pages and pages of advice on how to be "proper" reader in today's society. This book is a series of essays written by Jonathan Franzen recently as well as revisited essays from his past. He laments the fall of the novelist, the over-importance put to privacy and the lack of care afforded to the the public, and deteriorating postal systems (this essay, I must be honest, I ...more
Zachary Martin
Sep 18, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: lit-crit
As a writer, I think this book of essays is bad for a person's soul. Franzen is a good writer, the arguments are interesting, and I would have a hard time denying he isn't on to something. For me, however, that something is a cynicism I find rather toxic. Ultimately, though I think his insistence that anything that doesn't stick to the Charles Dickens/Henry James model of the novel to be a waste of the readers time is about the most insecure reaction to experimental fiction going. I really liked ...more
Feb 06, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: x2010-11-season
It's rare I find myself agreeing with the New york Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, but their descriptions of Jonathan Franzen as a "pompous prick, an "ego-blinded snob", and a "spoiled,whiny little brat" are spot on.

While the language is just as complex and florid as in his novels, these essays reveal far to much about the man behind the typewriter, and none of it is flattering.
Update: 13 November 2008 Franzen surprised me by saving the best for last. His second from the last essay, "Meet Me in St. Louis" turned out to be the best by far. It's the most personal and also brings the book back to where it started, his childhood home and mine, St. Louis. The first essay, "My Father's Brain" is about his father's slow drift into Alzheimers and the author's own reluctance to accept where his father's going. It is poignant in its understatedness.

In "Meet Me in St. Louis" Fra
Bastian Greshake Tzovaras
This was kind of a weird read for me. Franzen seems to be the kind of supporter of the form of cultural pessimism (highbrow literature is dying! TV and the internet are making us accept capitalism! only rotary phones are acceptable! [seriously, I only half-made up the last one, there is an essay on his rotary phone] etc) that in a way is still prevailing. Still I enjoyed reading even some of those essays, even if I strongly disagree with his conclusions.

To have a closer look into the different
Dani Dányi
Sep 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: did-not-finish
This guy is way, way more interesting when he's writing fiction! These essays deal with a pretty broad range of interesting enough topics, from depression, privacy and digitalization to kitsch and cigarettes and the mismanagement of Chicago's central post office - but for some reason, though he does know his writing, details and well-wrought rhetoric aside I just wasn't compelled to read through all of this deliberative drivel. All the better for reading Franzen's novels though.
Matt Schiavenza
Feb 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
I remember Franzen exploding onto the scene due to the controversy over Oprah's book club — his novel, The Corrections, had been chosen for inclusion but Franzen refused to go on the show in protest of Oprah's effect on book sales. I found this to be an overly precious position and avoided Franzen as a result.

But some of my friends raved about him and I thought I'd take a shot on a book of essays. Like all collections of the sort, this one is of variable quality. A story about his father's affl
Girish Gowda
Firstly, you need to know, some of these essays have very little to do with the title of this book. And the ones that do touch on the topic tangentially.
In fact, not until I was past a couple of these essays, did I realize that Franzen was not on about the "physical" isolation or aloneness per say but on a metaphysical level, which is ok. There are a couple of compelling paragraphs in here (not full essays or pages, it reduces down to paragraphs and lines), but most of it is overwritten. Seamles
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Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Corrections, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for fiction; the novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion; and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, all published by FSG. His fourth novel, Freedom, was published in the fall of 2010.

Franzen's other honors include a 1988 Whiting Writers' Award, Granta's Best Of Young Ameri

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