book cover of How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone

A non fiction book by

Novelist Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone is a collection of 14 essays that take the preservation of individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture as its main theme. Franzen sees himself, rightly, as one of a dying breed of reader/writers coming to terms with the fact that his world (or at least his audience) is shrinking and struggles with the temptation to give in to the techno world for the sake of health and happiness. We're told that "individuality and complexity" is the main theme but in truth the book is much more interesting than it sounds.

The opening essay entitled "My Father's Brain" is a fascinating and deeply poignant story about Alzheimer's disease that begins with a letter--sent by his mother--containing the autopsy of his father's brain. Instead of a self-regarding piece of "feel-my-pain" sentimentality Franzen describes in minute detail the mechanics of the disease itself, the history of its discovery and its effect on his father's personality and behaviour. It's also about the history of a marriage; a reflection on our need to think of ourselves and our loved ones as a distinct personality and the corresponding need to resist the idea--suggested to us by the progress of the disease--that personality is the function of a lump of grey meat: the brain. It ends with Franzen's post-humous discovery of his father's letters that reveal his secret attempt to stay in the light through force of will.

Besides marriage, memory, disease and death, Franzen also deals with subjects as different as smoking, the sex-advice industry, the workings of maximum security prisons, the fall of the Chicago Mail service and his brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author. The collection also includes a revised version of the famously misunderstood "Harper's Essay"--Franzen's 1996 look at the fate of the novel. Those expecting a series of naval-gazing, deadly earnest essays from a snobbish elitist who turns his nose up at popular culture and the benefits of electronic communication should think again. What's refreshing and unusual about these essays is that they are serious, funny, poignant, unpredictable and unashamedly elitist--but not in the way you might expect. --Larry Brown

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