The Bookworm: How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen. 320 pages. Picador. 2003.

In December I decided to pull together an essay collection that would include the complete text of “Perchance to Dream” and make clear what I had and hadn’t said in it. But when I opened the April 1996 Harper’s I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn’t quite follow it.

You know you’re in for a world of hurt when you read that in a book’s introduction. Even the author can’t understand what he’s written? Shit.

I bought How to Be Alone at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. A friend and his wife took me there for the first time in December, and it’s now my holy sanctuary in LA. Besides the art book stores in Santa Monica, Skylight is the only badass independent bookstore I know of in Southern California. Hollywood jokes aside, LA is an insanely artistic and creative place, yet it amazes me there are so few genuine, real, Prairie Lights-like bookstores there. Books aren’t its thing, I guess (duh), but you’d think the Southland would have a lot more, and better, choice in booksellers than the evil mall monsters.

Skylight is way up on Vermont Avenue, nearly underneath the shadow of Griffith Park and the famous observatory. Very cool place. While there I felt compelled to buy something. However, I was being my usual frugal self, trying to resist the urge. A great battle raged in my heart and mind as I walked around the store, in awe of the selection. Should I spend money or be a tight ass? I was wearing my Hamburg Inn shirt and one of my rounds around the shelves took me past the front counter. There were two cute chicks staffed behind the register, dancing to the music playing on the overhead hi-fi. One of them looked at me, made that corny “raise the roof” gesture, and said, “Iowa City in the house!” After that I had to buy something. It was a moral imperative.

All right — enough about Skylight.

How to Be Alone has been in my sights for a few years. I’d never read Franzen, and the title drew me in. I know how to be alone — I thrive on solitude — but I was interested in what Franzen had to say about it, what advice he had to offer to the paperback loving masses. At Prairie Lights I always managed to open the book to the beginning of “A Reader in Exile,” where Franzen writes about his ancient Sony Trinitron, “the gift of a friend whose girlfriend couldn’t stand the penetrating whistle the picture tube emitted.” His lonely, rejected TV intrigued me.

How to Be Alone, however, is not about how to be alone in the commonly assumed sense. Many of the essays are about Franzen’s own struggle, dealing with the fact he’s a committed social critic and novelist in an ever changing, technologically advancing, consumer centered world that he feels is slowly and surely undermining his importance in society. Readers and writers are becoming more isolated — being relegated to social and cultural anomalies in the fast paced, know-nothing experience promoted by rampant commercialism — and we need to learn how to be alone and deal with it.

The collected essays (many which appeared in Harper’s and…ugh…The New Yorker) range from the personal to the analytic. Also included are a few solid, brilliant pieces of literary journalism, most notably “Lost in the Mail” (about the Post Office crisis that rocked Chicago in the early-‘90s) and “Control Units” (about Florence, Colorado and the state and federal correctional facilities there). Most were written in the mid- or late-‘90s and a handful of them are painful to read.

You’ll have to excuse me. As a former newspaper journalist I worship clear and concise writing understandable to a broad audience, and some of How to Be Alone is not clear, concise, or understandable to a board audience. A number of the essays are dense, confusing, and borderline esoteric. At times I felt like Franzen was trying harder to impress (or possibly oppress) me than he was trying to be intelligible. Part of it was my fault and part of it is the nature of social criticism and literary bitching/whining. Despite having an English degree — supposedly possessing the ability to decipher Joyce, Kafka, and Stein without effort — I expect authors and their work to be comprehensible on the surface, but the disposition of social criticism is to be cryptic and impenetrable on purpose. To me it’s counterproductive and ironic: pieces that are meant to be revealing and promote understanding are in fact impossibly difficult and perplexing.

Franzen hit the nail on the head when he wrote that even he couldn’t follow his own writing. The essay in question was his famous “Harper’s essay,” which pondered the fate and usefulness of the novel in America. Franzen slightly revised and renamed it “Why Bother?” for inclusion in this collection. Why bother? I have no clue why. It was so dense I don’t even know why I bothered to finish it. However, because I’m a good guy and sympathetic artist, I think the essay deserves another reading. Second readings are always recommended. “Why Bother?” is the type of piece you have to have read to read. (Confused? The best analogy I can think of is what a friend told me about watching “The Godfather.” In order to watch it, to follow and understand the intricate plot developments, you need to have watched it all the way through.) Of course, even having read it once may not guarantee his argument becomes plain the second time through. It may just be incoherent.

Another qualm I had with many of the How to Be Alone essays was a lack of completeness. Few of them, I felt, were well-rounded, full. There was need for finality. It’s hard to explain. The best I can do is say they were unsatisfying. It was like eating dinner at a restaurant and leaving hungry. Perhaps its because of the essays’ density and the fact I felt stumped at the end. I wanted more, wanted something to bring it all together, and it didn’t happen.

New world I learned: Wow. I’m going even going to go there.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said, I do recommend reading How to Be Alone. Even though it’s often difficult to understand him, Franzen is a brilliant man who is tortured by his critical and writerly mind. At times his writing is poignant and evocative, and I think those instances are enough to warrant a reading…at least one.

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