Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen

278 pages

I live alone. I've lived alone for the last 10 years, really, except for a three-year period after which I decided to, again, live alone. I moved to Springfield 6 months ago, totally alone. It's amazing how un-alone you can feel after only 6 months. Yesterday in yoga class, I ran into my grocer. Connections are being made.

It's no surprise, then, that the title of this set of essays caught my eye. The fact that it was written by Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom, THE most talked-about/reviewed book of 2010, was another plus. Also, Franzen was a friend of David Foster Wallace, whose Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself I'd recently read. (I became interested in my now-boyfriend Matt because he was reading Wallace's Infinite Jest. He had hefted it all the way to Korea, where we met teaching English. I'd placed the book on hold right before leaving Korea, thinking I would take it, but after gauging it's thickness, decided...naw.) Strangely, I haven't actually read anything by either author, but feel a connection with them.

Reading this set of essays is all about connections. Franzen is from St. Louis, so I feel some kind of Missouri fellowship with him as he tells his stories. Personal essays about, his father's Alzheimer's alternate with investigations of the banal worlds of the Postal Service and a penitentiary in Colorado (he interviews Tupac's dad). You feel Franzen's true passion, however, in his essays on fiction and its importance in culture, or rather on its declining importance in our culture. This book was published in 2003, with many of the essays from the mid-90s, that quaint, pre-Google time...dial-up modems,, phones that just, well, make phone calls. (Franzen writes about not wanting to let go of his rotary phone.) And besides, fiction is still alive and well, right? We read, just on a Nook now, right? Or not? Are kids banishing books for video games? For picture books that get electronically read to them on their iPad instead of by their Dad? Is the general public as obsessed with reading as we librarians are? Franzen is a great writer, and his writing about writing and reading, even if antiquated, are great.

I didn't get any tips on how to be alone. But Franzen gives many examples of how reading connects you to a larger circle of readers and to the rest of the world. To bring it full circle, Franzen even mentions a conversation on an airplane with a woman from Springfield. I guess I'm lucky to work in a library, full of books for finding connections that make me feel not so alone. (plus my coworkers are awesome.)

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