Rebecca's Reviews > Farther Away

Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen
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really liked it
bookshelves: memoirs, travel-books, uncategorizable

This brilliant essay collection is worth the price of admission just for the first piece, “Pain Won’t Kill You” (his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College), which is, bluntly put, about the difference between the throwaway Facebook ‘like’ and truly falling in love with someone or something. He uses the personal example of birdwatching: “it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool.”

Yet discovering that enthusiasm for birds taught him that he could transform frustrated feelings of helplessness into useful action; if he could just “run toward...pain and anger and despair, rather than away from them,” he could turn hobbies into impassioned journalism: “I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated, at a particular moment, became the thing I wanted to write about.”

And this is evident in later pieces in the collection: eloquent exposés of songbird slaughter in the Mediterranean and China’s environmental degradation. I found this essay hugely inspirational. Why let myself get depressed about palm oil plantations destroying orangutan habitat, or non-recyclable plastics, or Internet pornography and other degradations of women – why not write about them as a form of protest?

Indeed, as Franzen learned, “When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”

Title piece “Farther Away” documents Franzen’s pilgrimage to Alejandro Selkirk Island (where the real-life Robinson Crusoe was stranded) to experience solitude, find some rare birds, and scatter his friend David Foster Wallace’s ashes. Franzen believes Wallace was right to posit “fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude. Fiction was his way off the island.”

“On Autobiographical Fiction” is an absolute must-read for any reader or writer. The autobiographical pieces here are, ironically, among the least interesting, though his whimsical interview with New York State is charming, and I prized this line from “Hornets” (about his hard-up house-sitting days): “Mowing lawns has always seemed to me among the most despair-inducing of human activities” (for me it’s washing dishes).

The remaining essays are a mixture of gently irascible anti-technology polemic (he detests constant cell phone use, arguing it displays the selfish attitude of ‘My emotions and my family are more important to me than your social comfort’) and literary criticism based on appreciation rather than sniping (à la Nick Hornby): he fêtes Alice Munro and resurrects a number of lost classics, such as Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

He ends his piece on Munro with a plea for the transforming power of literature: “Can a better kind of fiction save the world? There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul.”

I agree: I’m a firm believer in and supporter of bibliotherapy. Books can be one way of becoming that impassioned, involved lover and critic of the world he describes in the first essay.

There is hardly a better reader or writer at work in America today than Jonathan Franzen.
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Reading Progress

February 14, 2012 – Shelved
August 17, 2013 – Started Reading
September 9, 2013 –
page 75
September 15, 2013 – Finished Reading
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: memoirs
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: uncategorizable
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: travel-books

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Is a GoodReads like as "throwaway" as a Facebook one? ;)

Rebecca Hmm. I don't think so. It generally means you've read and thought about a person's review -- at least I hope so! I only like a GR review if I've engaged with it.

message 3: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Phew!

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