How to Be Alone: Essays [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...

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How to Be Alone: Essays

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Overview

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

From Barnes & Noble
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.
The New York Times Book Review
[Franzen] starts from the hypothesis, basic to any good novelist's inquiry, that even the simplest, most trivial activities…are riven with complexities, and then proceeds, with exemplary ethical seriousness, grouchy stubbornness and silken wit, to break those complexities down into their moral, psychological and historical components.
Eric Wargo
In this wise, entertaining collection of essays, the author of the 2001 National Book Award– winning The Corrections treats a wide variety of subjects—Alzheimer's, cigarettes, rotary phones—but he's never far from his central concern, the literary life. Reprinted here is his controversial 1996 Harper's essay on the state of the novel, as well as the story of his famous disinvitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show for seeming, as she put it, "conflicted." But his most poignant (and funny) account of writing's pitfalls and pathologies is "Scavenging," about his years as a struggling fiction writer and the objects that peopled his world: "I wonder, is it possible to imagine a grimmer vision of codependency than the hundreds of hours I logged with sharp strands of copper wire squeezed between my thumb and forefinger, helping my TV with its picture?" Of his reluctance to join the Prozac-satiated multitudes with their "undepressed smiles," he notes, "I seem to myself a person who shrilly hates health." Franzen could seem shrill were his insights on modern life not so keen nor his belief in books so passionate.
From The Critics
In this wise, entertaining collection of essays, the author of the 2001 National Book Award– winning The Corrections treats a wide variety of subjects—Alzheimer's, cigarettes, rotary phones—but he's never far from his central concern, the literary life. Reprinted here is his controversial 1996 Harper's essay on the state of the novel, as well as the story of his famous disinvitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show for seeming, as she put it, "conflicted." But his most poignant (and funny) account of writing's pitfalls and pathologies is "Scavenging," about his years as a struggling fiction writer and the objects that peopled his world: "I wonder, is it possible to imagine a grimmer vision of codependency than the hundreds of hours I logged with sharp strands of copper wire squeezed between my thumb and forefinger, helping my TV with its picture?" Of his reluctance to join the Prozac-satiated multitudes with their "undepressed smiles," he notes, "I seem to myself a person who shrilly hates health." Franzen could seem shrill were his insights on modern life not so keen nor his belief in books so passionate. Author—Eric Wargo
Publishers Weekly
"In publishing circles, confessions of self doubt are widely referred to as `whining'-the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don't sell, ungracious in writers who do." This quote, taken from his Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream," and later reworked for this collection as "Why Bother," was written before Franzen tasted huge success with his bestselling novel The Corrections. Fans of that work will be intrigued by the elements from Franzen's personal life that run parallel to those of the characters in The Corrections. However, Franzen's adroit cultural criticism, albeit a personal one, is the root of this collection of essays. Hearing such subjective work read by the author himself adds an air of authenticity. It also satisfies a curiosity as to what that voice actually sounds like. This audiobook's editors satisfy that curiosity, but also make the wise choice of not letting Franzen read the entire collection. While his reading is sincere, his delivery, unlike his text, is passionless and dry. Fortunately, the lion's share of the essays is read with much more moxie by James. He gives these intelligent, thoughtful and provocative pieces more dramatic punch than Franzen can. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Forecasts, Sept. 2). (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In these essays, Franzen, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for Fiction, demonstrates how our materialistic culture has brought about the homogenization of society. He notes that although one might assume a black lesbian New Yorker and a Southern Baptist Georgian are very different people, in reality, owing to the influence of the mass media and powerful corporations, "both watch David Letterman every night, both are struggling to find health insurance, both play Lotto, and both have a guilty crush on Uma Thurman." From a personal and scholarly point of view, Franzen discusses such topics as our obsession with technology, the state of the novel, modern prisons, the proliferation of sex-advice books, and a scandal in the Chicago postal system. Also included is a very moving account of his father's battle with Alzheimer's disease. Although many of the works are scholarly in tone, Brian d'Arcy James's lucid, well-paced narration makes this collection accessible and interesting. Very highly recommended to all libraries.-Beth Farrell, Portage Cty. Dist. Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Of maximum-security prisons, Dumpster diving, and privacy in a technological age: a collection of essays diverse and entertaining by the author of last year's Big Novel, The Corrections. Before The Corrections, which led circuitously to "Oprah Winfrey's disinvitation of me from her Book Club," Franzen was perhaps best known to general readers as the author of an arch, funny, and contrarian essay recounting the reasons for his "despair of the American novel," published in Harper's and thus known among the cognoscenti simply as "the Harper's essay." Revised to be still more arch and no less contrarian, if somewhat less lit-critical, the essay (now called "Why Bother?") is reason enough to fiction lovers in this increasingly "infantilizing" culture to take Franzen's nonfiction out for a spin, though it won't please the academic readers it relentlessly twits in salutary slaps such as: "The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical work from the Dark Ages before 1950) and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World ("the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures"). The other essays, most previously published in Details, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, deliver sufficient bang for the book, though none quite stands up to the centerpiece. Some of them, such as a perceptive study of the Post Office at work, manage to be quite timely even as they bear a few signs of age; others get a little weird, as when Franzen observes that smoking cigarettes serves, at least in his case, "to become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with the contours of its terrors, to make theworld's potential death less strange and so a little less threatening." None, however, is predictable, and all bear Franzen's trademark sensibility of smiling, even though scared silly, in the face of doom. Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many remaining admirers.
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)
2
"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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374707644
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 435,585
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Jonathan Franzen

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 four novels (Freedom, The Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City), two collections of essays (Farther Away, How to Be Alone), a personal history (The Discomfort Zone), and a translation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, all published by FSG. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1958
    2. Place of Birth:
      Western Springs, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

"A Word About This Book"

"My Father's Brain"

"Imperial Bedroom"

"Why Bother"

"Lost in the Mail"

"Erika Imports"

"Sifting the Ashes"

"A Reader in Exile"

"First City"

"Scavenging"

"Control Units"

"Books in Bed"

"Meet Me in St. Louis"

"Inauguration Day, January 2001"

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 20 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    The Bobby Vinton of Non-fiction

    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.....

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2003

    change your view

    Visiting a post office hasn't been the same for me, since I read Franzen's LOST IN THE MAIL in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2014

    Jess

    She sits on her couch, eating a cracker and watching Touched By an Angel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 12, 2013

    Wonderful book of essays.

    Wonderful book of essays.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    A Sparrow

    A sparrow glides through the air, with a note. The sparr dropped it in front of his den. It was from Willowwish. "Dear, Shadowhunter. Sorry about yesterday at my den. I felt bad for making you upset. So I was thinking it over... how about you come visit my den for a little meet-up and get to know eachother and have dinner? If you don't want to come, well, okay. Hope to see you soon." --Sincerly, Willowwish

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2012

    Birdsong

    She curls up in a ball. Sorry- i have to go. Maybe tomarrow?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

    Shadowhunter

    Falls asleep

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

    Insightful and moving...

    ...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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    Posted August 16, 2010

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