How to Be Alone: Essays

How to Be Alone: Essays

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by Jonathan Franzen

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Passionate, strong-minded nonfiction from the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Nearly every in-depth review of it discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the

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Passionate, strong-minded nonfiction from the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Nearly every in-depth review of it discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the fate of the American novel. This essay is reprinted for the first time in How to be Alone, along with the personal essays and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections. Although his subjects range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each piece wrestles with familiar themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Recent pieces include a moving essay on his father's stuggle with Alzheimer's disease (which has already been reprinted around the world) and a rueful account of Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author.

As a collection, these 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." At the same time they show the 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 our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.

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Editorial Reviews

For two reasons, Jonathan Franzen was the most-discussed author of 2001. The first, of course, was the publication of his novel The Corrections, which won critics' plaudits and the National Book Award. And the second, needless to say, was Oprah Winfrey. The controversies stemming from his very brief tenure as an Oprah author reverberate still. In this eclectic collection of essays, Franzen examines not only the book club brouhaha, but maximum-security prisons, the sex-advice industry, and the persistence of loneliness in postmodern America. How to Be Alone contains Franzen's two most famous essays: the moving piece he wrote about his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease and "the Harper essay," his incisive 1996 view of the precarious state of the American novel.

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How to Be Alone


By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2003 Jonathan Franzen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70764-4



Here's a memory. On an overcast morning in February 1996, I received in the mail from my mother, in St. Louis, a Valentine's package containing one pinkly romantic greeting card, two four-ounce Mr. Goodbars, one hollow red filigree heart on a loop of thread, and one copy of a neuropathologist's report on my father's brain autopsy.

I remember the bright gray winter light that morning. I remember leaving the candy, the card, and the ornament in my living room, taking the autopsy report into my bedroom, and sitting down to read it. The brain (it began) weighed 1,255 gm and showed parasagittal atrophy with sulcal widening. I remember translating grams into pounds and pounds into the familiar shrink-wrapped equivalents in a supermarket meat case. I remember putting the report back into its envelope without reading any further.

Some years before he died, my father had participated in a study of memory and aging sponsored by Washington University, and one of the perks for participants was a postmortem brain autopsy, free of charge. I suspect that the study offered other perks of monitoring and treatment which had led my mother, who loved freebies of all kinds, to insist that my father volunteer for it. Thrift was also probably her only conscious motive for including the autopsy report in my Valentine's package. She was saving thirty-two cents' postage.

My clearest memories of that February morning are visual and spatial: the yellow Mr. Goodbar, my shift from living room to bedroom, the late-morning light of a season as far from the winter solstice as from spring. I'm aware, however, that even these memories aren't to be trusted. According to the latest theories, which are based on a wealth of neurological and psychological research in the last few decades, the brain is not an album in which memories are stored discretely like unchanging photographs. A memory is, instead, in the phrase of the psychologist Daniel L. Schachter, a "temporary constellation" of activity—a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory. Indeed, even as my experience on that Valentine's morning was unfolding, my brain was relying on pre-existing categories of "red" and "heart" and "Mr. Goodbar"; the gray sky in my windows was familiar from a thousand other winter mornings; and I already had millions of neurons devoted to a picture of my mother—her stinginess with postage, her romantic attachments to her children, her lingering anger toward my father, her weird lack of tact, and so on. What my memory of that morning therefore consists of, according to the latest models, is a set of hardwired neuronal connections among the pertinent regions of the brain, and a predisposition for the entire constellation to light up—chemically, electrically—when any one part of the circuit is stimulated. Speak the words "Mr. Goodbar" and ask me to free-associate, and if I don't say "Diane Keaton" I will surely say "brain autopsy."

My Valentine's memory would work this way even if I were dredging it up now for the first time ever. But the fact is that I've re-remembered that February morning countless times since then. I've told the story to my brothers. I've offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing. I've even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all. Each succeeding recollection and retelling reinforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute the memory. At the cellular level, according to neuroscientists, I'm burning the memory in a little deeper each time, strengthening the dendritic connections among its components, further encouraging the firing of that specific set of synapses. One of the great adaptive virtues of our brains, the feature that makes our gray matter so much smarter than any machine yet devised (my laptop's cluttered hard drive or a World Wide Web that insists on recalling, in pellucid detail, a Beverly Hills 90210 fan site last updated on II/2o/98), is our ability to forget almost everything that has ever happened to us. I retain general, largely categorical memories of the past (a year spent in Spain; various visits to Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street) but relatively few specific episodic memories. Those memories that I do retain I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen. They become literally—morphologically, electrochemically—part of the architecture of my brain.

This model of memory, which I've presented here in a rather loose layperson's summary, excites the amateur scientist in me. It feels true to the twinned fuzziness and richness of my own memories, and it inspires awe with its image of neural networks effortlessly self-coordinating, in a massively parallel way, to create my ghostly consciousness and my remarkably sturdy sense of self. It seems to me lovely and postmodern. The human brain is a web of a hundred billion neurons, maybe as many as two hundred billion, with trillions of axons and dendrites exchanging quadrillions of messages by way of at least fifty different chemical transmitters. The organ with which we observe and make sense of the universe is, by a comfortable margin, the most complex object we know of in that universe.

And yet it's also a lump of meat. At some point, maybe later on that same Valentine's Day, I forced myself to read the entire pathology report. It included a "Microscopic Description" of my father's brain:

Sections of the frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal cerebral cortices showed numerous senile plaques, prominently diffuse type, with minimal numbers of neurofibrillary tangles. Cortical Lewy bodies were easily detected in H&E stained material. The amygdala demonstrated plaques, occasional tangles and mild neuron loss.

In the notice that we had run in local newspapers nine months earlier, my mother insisted that we say my father had died "after long illness." She liked the phrase's formality and reticence, but it was hard not to hear her grievance in it as well, her emphasis on long. The pathologist's identification of senile plaques in my father's brain served to confirm, as only an autopsy could, the fact with which she'd struggled daily for many years: like millions of other Americans, my father had had Alzheimer's disease.

This was his disease. It was also, you could argue, his story. But you have to let me tell it.

ALZHEIMER'S IS A DISEASE of classically "insidious onset." Since even healthy people become more forgetful as they age, there's no way to pinpoint the first memory to fall victim to it. The problem was especially vexed in the case of my father, who not only was depressive and reserved and slightly deaf but also was taking strong medicines for other ailments. For a long time it was possible to chalk up his non sequiturs to his hearing impairment, his forgetfulness to his depression, his hallucinations to his medicines; and chalk them up we did.

My memories of the years of my father's initial decline are vividly about things other than him. Indeed, I'm somewhat appalled by how large I loom in my own memories, how peripheral my parents are. But I was living far from home in those years. My information came mainly from my mother's complaints about my father, and these complaints I took with a grain of salt; she'd been complaining to me pretty much all my life.

My parents' marriage was, it's safe to say, less than happy. They stayed together for the sake of their children and for want of hope that divorce would make them any happier. As long as my father was working, they enjoyed autonomy in their respective fiefdoms of home and workplace, but after he retired, in 1981, at the age of sixty-six, they commenced a round-the-clock performance of No Exit in their comfortably furnished suburban house. I arrived for brief visits like a U.N. peacekeeping force to which each side passionately presented its case against the other.

Unlike my mother, who was hospitalized nearly thirty times in her life, my father had perfect health until he retired. His parents and uncles had lived into their eighties and nineties, and he, Earl Franzen, fully expected to be around at ninety "to see," as he liked to say, "how things turn out." (His anagramatic namesake Lear imagined his last years in similar terms: listening to "court news," with Cordelia, to see "who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out.") My father had no hobbies and few pleasures besides eating meals, seeing his children, and playing bridge, but he did take a narrative interest in life. He watched a staggering amount of TV news. His ambition for old age was to follow the unfolding histories of the nation and his children for as long as he could.

The passivity of this ambition, the sameness of his days, tended to make him invisible to me. From the early years of his mental decline I can dredge up exactly one direct memory: watching him, toward the end of the eighties, struggle and fail to calculate the tip on a restaurant bill.

Fortunately, my mother was a great writer of letters. My father's passivity, which I regarded as regrettable but not really any of my business, was a source of bitter disappointment to her. As late as the fall of 1989—a season in which, according to her letters, my father was still playing golf and undertaking major home repairs—the terms of her complaints remained strictly personal:

It is extremely difficult living with a very unhappy person when you know you must be the major cause of the unhappiness. Decades ago when Dad told me he didn't believe there is such a thing as love (that sex is a "trap") and that he was not cut out to be a "happy" person I should have been smart enough to realize there was no hope for a relationship satisfactory to me. But I was busy & involved with my children and friends I loved and I guess, like Scarlett O'Hara, I told myself I would "worry about that tomorrow."

This letter dates from a period during which the theater of my parents' war had shifted to the issue of my father's hearing impairment. My mother maintained that it was inconsiderate not to wear a hearing aid; my father complained that other people lacked the consideration to "speak up." The battle culminated Pyrrhically in his purchase of a hearing aid that he then declined to wear. Here again, my mother constructed a moral story of his "stubbornness" and "vanity" and "defeatism"; but it's hard not to suspect, in hindsight, that his faulty ears were already serving to camouflage more serious trouble.

A letter from January 1990 contains my mother's first written reference to this trouble:

Last week one day he had to skip his breakfast time medication in order to take some motor skills tests at Wash U. where he is in the Memory & Ageing study. That night I awakened to the sound of his electric razor, looked at the clock & he was in the bathroom shaving at 2:3o AM.

Within a few months my father was making so many mistakes that my mother was forced to entertain other explanations:

Either he's stressed or not concentrating or having some mental deterioration but there have been quite a few incidents recently that really worry me. He keeps leaving the car door open or the lights on & twice in one week we had to call triple A & have them come out & charge the battery (now I've posted signs in the garage & that seems to have helped) ... I really don't like the idea of leaving him in the house alone for more than a short while.

My mother's fear of leaving him alone assumed greater urgency as the year wore on. Her right knee was worn out, and, because she already had a steel plate in her leg from an earlier fracture, she was facing complicated surgery followed by prolonged recovery and rehab. Her letters from late 1990 and early 1991 are marked by paragraphs of agonizing over whether to have surgery and how to manage my father if she did.

Were he in the house alone more than overnight with me in the hospital I would be an absolute basket case as he leaves the water running, the stove on at times, lights on everywhere, etc ... I check & recheck as much as I can on most things lately but even so many of our affairs are in a state of confusion & what really is hardest is his resentment of my intrusion—"stay out of my affairs!!!" He does not accept or realize my wanting to be helpful & that is the hardest thing of all for me.

At the time, I'd recently finished my second novel, and so I offered to stay with my father while my mother had her operation. To steer clear of his pride, she and I agreed to pretend that I was coming for her sake, not his. What's odd, though, is that I was only half-pretending. My mother's characterization of my father's incapacity was compelling, but so was my father's portrayal of my mother as an alarmist nag. I went to St. Louis because, for her, his incapacity was absolutely real; once there, I behaved as if, for me, it absolutely wasn't.

Just as she'd feared, my mother was in the hospital for nearly five weeks. Strangely, although I'd never lived alone with my father for so long and never would again, I can now remember almost nothing specific about my stay with him; I have a general impression that he was somewhat quiet, maybe, but otherwise completely normal. Here, you might think, was a direct contradiction of my mother's earlier reports. And yet I have no memory of being bothered by the contradiction. What I do have is a copy of a letter that I wrote to a friend while in St. Louis. In the letter, I mention that my father has had his medication adjusted and now everything is fine.

Wishful thinking? Yes, to some extent. But one of the basic features of the mind is its keenness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. We all have a literal blind spot in our vision where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, but our brain unfailingly registers a seamless world around us. We catch part of a word and hear the whole. We see expressive faces in floral-pattern upholstery; we constantly fill in blanks. In a similar way, I think I was inclined to interpolate across my father's silences and mental absences and to persist in seeing him as the same old wholly whole Earl Franzen. I still needed him to be an actor in my story of myself. In my letter to my friend, I describe a morning rehearsal of the St. Louis Symphony that my mother insisted that my father and I attend so as not to waste her free tickets to it. After the first half of the session, in which the very young Midori nailed the Sibelius violin concerto, my father sprang from his seat with miserable geriatric agitation. "So," he said, "we'll go now." I knew better than to ask him to sit through the Charles Ives symphony that was coming, but I hated him for what I took to be his philistinism. On the drive home, he had one comment about Midori and Sibelius. "I don't understand that music," he said. "What do they do—memorize it?"

LATER THAT SPRING, my father was diagnosed with a small, slow-growing cancer in his prostate. His doctors recommended that he not bother treating it, but he insisted on a course of radiation. With a kind of referred wisdom about his own mental state, he became terrified that something was dreadfully wrong with him: that he would not, after all, survive into his nineties. My mother, whose knee continued to bleed internally six months after her operation, had little patience with what she considered his hypochondria. In September 1991 she wrote:

I'm relieved to have Dad started on his radiation therapy & it forces him to get out of the house every day [inserted, here, a smiley face]—a big plus. He got to the point where he was so nervous, so worried, so depressed I knew he had to make some decision. Actually, being so sedentary now (content to do nothing), he has had too much time to worry & think about himself—he NEEDS distractions! ... More & more I feel the greatest attributes anyone can have are (I), a positive attitude & (2), a sense of humor—wish Dad had them.

There ensued some months of relative optimism. The cancer was eradicated, my mother's knee finally improved, and her native hopefulness returned to her letters. She reported that my father had taken first place in a game of bridge: "With his confusion cleared up & his less conservative approach to the game he is doing remarkably well & it's about the only thing he enjoys (& can stay awake for!)." But my father's anxiety about his health did not abate; he had stomach pains that he was convinced were caused by cancer. Gradually, the import of the story my mother was telling me migrated from the personal and the moral toward the psychiatric. "The past six months we have lost so many friends it is very unsettling—part of Dad's nervousness & depression I'm sure," she wrote in February 1992. The letter continued:

Dad's internist, Dr. Rouse, has about concluded what I have felt all along regarding Dad's stomach discomfort (he's ruled out all clinical possibilities). Dad is (i) terribly nervous, (2) terribly depressed & I hope Dr. Rouse will put him on an anti-depressant. I know there has to be help for this ... There have been disturbing, distressing things in our lives the past year, I know that very well, but Dad's mental condition is hurting him physically & if he won't go for counseling (suggested by Dr. Weiss) perhaps he now will accept pills or whatever it takes for nervousness & depression.

For a while, the phrase "nervousness & depression" was a fixture of her letters. Prozac briefly seemed to lift my father's spirits, but the effects were short-lived. Finally, in July 1992, to my surprise, he agreed to see a psychiatrist.

My father had always been supremely suspicious of psychiatry. He viewed therapy as an invasion of privacy, mental health as a matter of self-discipline, and my mother's increasingly pointed suggestions that he "talk to someone" as acts of aggression—little lobbed grenades of blame for their unhappiness as a couple. It was a measure of his desperation that he voluntarily set foot in a psychiatrist's office.


Excerpted from How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright © 2003 Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A graceful meditation on reading and writing in a digital age . . . Franzen probes two very simple ideas: 'the movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance—even a celebration—of being a reader and a writer' and 'the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture.'"—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Altanta Journal-Constitution

"Franzen believes the monolithic quality of the U.S. media, its jingoistic flattening of complex issues and the rush to hop on the information superhighway are a constant assault on the internal lives of Americans . . . These are essays about the pain of being an American in a time when the means to alleviating pain threaten to dehumanize pain itself, when the means for entertaining ourselves have become so sophisticated it's almost hard to complain. There's some boldness, then, in how Franzen reclaims his pain on the page, owning up to it and, as any good journalist will, making it our own, too."—John Freeman, The San Francisco Chronicle

"Although Franzen calls them 'essays' many of these pieces are reportage. He's good at it . . . All these pieces place both writer and reader on firm ground . . . He goes out on many a limb (as essayists should) and gives us a good many things to think about, such as the blurring line between private and public behavior in the age of the 24-hour news cycle."—Dan Sullivan, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"If Franzen had not been anointed to the Higher Calling of Literature, he might have made a terrific journalist . . . Two of the reportage pieces are models of the New Journalism."—Roger K. Miller, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"Franzen is a charming and sagacious writer, even an important one, a man who cares about literature and who cares about the problems of modernity—race, urban sprawl, corporate hegemony. Books matter, is the final message. A keen intellect is at work here, even though Franzen often seems to be arguing with himself; perhaps How to Be Alone is most brilliant when the author is arguing with himself. Jonathan Franzen has a restless mind and we are better for it."—Corey Mesler, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)


"A collection of essays diverse and entertaining . . . Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many admirers."—Kirkus Reviews

"[Franzen] demonstrates his remarkable capacity for evaluating the American scene . . . The journalistic pieces included in the book show that Franzen ain't afraid to face facts . . . Essays covering the tobacco industry and the 2001 presidential election, as well as consumerism and the nature of privacy in America, offer rare evaluations of the modern world as we know it."—Bookpage

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Meet the Author

Jonathan Franzen won the National Book Award for Fiction for The Corrections in 2001, and is the author of two other critically acclaimed novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of Purity and four other novels, most recently The Corrections and Freedom, and five works of nonfiction and translation, including Farther Away and The Kraus Project, all published by FSG. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the German Akademie der Künste, and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Western Springs, Illinois
B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin

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How to Be Alone 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't read much non-fiction in my free time. I prefer fiction novels. But, I read 'The Corrections' and decided to try JF's 'How to be Alone.' Glad I did. At the outset, I was suspicious of non-fiction by a fiction novelist -- the Reader never knows when the Writer has crossed the line from non-fiction back to the home turf. The Writer probably doesn't know either. So, although I approached the content with a grain of salt, I held JF up to the light with regards to the writing. And the result was pretty interesting. I know that these essays were printed originally in another format -- magazines I think. I don't think that a Reader who read them at the time of their original publications would have the same interaction with them as the Reader who read them in one fell swoop as a collection. Read them seratim and the Writer's controlling hand pops out as much as the substance of each essay. The entirety of the collection plays like an accordian: sometimes JF is distant from the Reader (like an accordian extended and strained) and sometimes he is closer (like an accordian squeezed close and tight to the body) and sometimes he is nearby and amiable but not too intrusive (striking a comfortable C Major). He draws the Reader in and then pushes the Reader out. Among the first group are the essays about the purpose(s) of fiction novels and fiction writing. His syntax, vocabulary and presentation create distance. That's not to say that I wasn't absorbed by them all. (Despite what Ms. M says, I appreciate the effort that goes into knowing and choosing the right word to express the thought.) And that's not to say I agreed with everything JF posited. Sometimes he just made me chuckle. (Honestly, TV is not a horseman of the apocalypse of American culture.) The second group of essays, including those about his father's illness and JF's return to St. Louis, draw the Reader towards his human-ness. He achieves that not only with the content, but use of more pedestrian vocabulary and references to common stuff. (These were hard for me to read as my mother, who suffered from dementia, recently died. Then again, they made me feel a little less lonely.) The third group, including the essays about the Post Office, the prisons and cigarettes, were well-constructed, informative and interesting, and they would have made great segments on Dateline NBC. (I'll not remark on the sex essay as 'Victorian silences appeal to me' too.) So the uptake is that not only are the individual essays worth the effort to read, but also the collection offers a rare glimpse into how a Writer controls the Reader. And JF is a talented man. Which in turn makes me happy. My favorite (and that is the right word) author died this year, which is sad in many ways and on multiple levels. However, I have found a handful of Writers who, collectively or in groups, can fill the void. JF is one of them. I anticipate greatly his next novel. And you know, after reading 'How to be Alone,' I wonder if this news isn't a bit disquieting for JF -- he has an audience with expectations. Ah, the power of the Reader.....
Guest More than 1 year ago
Visiting a post office hasn't been the same for me, since I read Franzen's LOST IN THE MAIL in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NathanDPhillips More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book of essays.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...if not a little preachy and dated. There is a distinct "get off my lawn" quality to a few of the pieces that I couldnt quite get over.
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She curls up in a ball. Sorry- i have to go. Maybe tomarrow?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Falls asleep