[Review] How to be Alone

How to be Alone: CoverI don't recall now how Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections first fell into my hands. I suspect it was a book that I picked up in an airport or bookstore in a city I was visiting when I'd run out of reading material. (A practice that has been obsoleted by owning a Kindle. This is good at 11 p.m. in a hotel with nothing to do, but bad in that I find fewer books through chance.)

What I do recall of The Corrections is that I tore through it obsessively, and enjoyed it immensely. So I picked up some of his other works (The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion) hoping to revisit the feeling I had reading The Corrections.

The Twenty-Seventh City had a cooling effect on my interest in Franzen. It's a decent novel, and set in my home town (St. Louis) but it's not quite the book that The Corrections is. It's more of a suspense title, and much more impersonal than The Corrections.

After picking up How to be Alone a while back, it sat gathering dust because I wanted to check back in with Franzen,  but was a little less motivated to do so.  As it turns out, that was a mistake.

This collection of essays is a must-read for anyone who still loves reading, and cares about the novel. (A first- or second-hand familiarity with depression, or at least Weltschmerz, will also come in handy.)

The essays run the gamut, from deeply personal (such as "My Father's Brain," which deals with his father's decline and death, suffering from Alzheimer's) to the journalistic ("Lost in the Mail," which examines the declining postal service through the lens of Chicago's troubled postal system), to the academic and literary (such as "The Reader in Exile.")

It felt many times like Franzen had written a book for me personally. "Why Bother," is really the core of the book. Originally it was published in Harper's with the title "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." Franzen re-worked the essay for the book and re-titled it, because many people mistook the intention of the original essay.

"Why Bother" wrestles with Franzen's "despair about the American novel." Any reader of fiction will find this essay simultaneously satisfying, depressing, and enjoyable. Satisfying and enjoyable because Franzen articulates what most of us already think about the the novel and its place in today's world. Depressing because there's no likelihood that the novel, or writing in general, will ever reclaim its position as a pre-eminent form of discourse.

I also heartily enjoyed "Mr. Difficult," which discusses the difference between schools of thought of how fiction relates to its audience. The "Status" model, which finds "difficult" works of fiction to have value even if the average audience finds it impenetrable and unenjoyable. The "Contract" model assumes that the writer has a contract with their audience to provide an enjoyable work that they can connect with.  (As with Franzen, I find myself firmly in the "Contract" camp, though I feel the "reader-response" school takes this a wee bit too far.)

The writing and arguments put forward in How to be Alone are excellent. I would recommend it to anyone who cares about fiction, reading, and to any fans of Franzen's fiction.

My To-Read List for the Rest of the Year

To Read PileMy current to-read list for the rest of 2013. I'd like to finish all of these by the end of 2013, if not sooner.

This doesn't preclude my adding a few more titles, or moving them around.

I've already started Words and Rules and have almost completed Sacre Bleu and A Collection of Essays by George Orwell. (I'm finding Sacre Bleu much less interesting than usual for Moore's books, but I'm determined to finish it…)

  • Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • A Choice of Days by HL Mencken
  • A Collection of Essays by George Orwell by George Orwell
  • A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Clarence Darrow by John A. Farrell
  • Contempt of Court by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips
  • Drink by Iain Gately
  • Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
  • For Us, The Living by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
  • How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
  • John Adams by David McCullogh
  • Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
  • Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston
  • The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris
  • The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin (Started and then tossed aside. Not worth finishing.)
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
  • Words and Rules by Steven Pinker

(Update: As I finish books, I'll try to remember to come back and put a strikethrough on the title…)

Word of the Day: 積ん読 (tsundoku)

tsundokuFrom a friend on Facebook, tsundoku (積ん読): "the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with such other unread books." (Combination of tsumu (to pile up) and doku (to read), which is a pun on tsundeoku (to leave piled up).

I'm glad that there's a word for this. It's something I'm well-acquainted with, but didn't have a succinct way of discussing previously…

If I lived to be 100, and could spend 40+ hours a week reading, I still wouldn't finish all the books I'd like to read. And that's assuming I don't turn up any new books when reading other books, and assuming nothing else is published ever again. Sigh.