How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

‘How to Be Alone’ by Jonathan Franzen is an interesting collection of fourteen essays loosely based around the theme of solitude and privacy.  I enjoyed his most recent novel ‘Freedom’ but I definitely struggled with ‘The Corrections’  which I thought would have been much improved with a bit of decent editing.  However, I found Franzen’s non-fiction work to be much more readable in terms of content and also more manageable in terms of length with this collection clocking in at around 300 pages.

Like many collections of essays and short stories, some inevitably stand out more than others.  For me, the best ones here are ‘My Father’s Brain’ in which Franzen poignantly describes his father’s declining health as he battled Alzheimer’s disease, ‘Lost in the Mail’ which was a surprisingly fascinating description of the failings of the Chicago postal system (yes, really) and ‘Control Units’ which takes a look at life inside maximum-security prisons in Colorado.  Unfortunately, some of the essays from the mid-1990s are now quite dated, particularly in the way he talks about America – the place ‘where relatively nothing bad has happened’.  This is also very noticeable when reading the edited version of his famous Harper’s Bazaar article first published in 1996 on the subject of the fate of the novel in an era where technology is a constant distraction – if Franzen was so worried about this seventeen years ago before most people used the internet, what must he think now?

Even though ‘How to Be Alone’ is not a particularly lengthy collection of articles, I still find Franzen to be very wordy – almost over-articulate in a way.  Maybe this is because his style of writing contrasts quite a lot with my own which is usually quite concise.  Nevertheless, I now appreciate how passionate Franzen is about the craft of fiction and he makes a pretty convincing case for the need for personal space in contemporary life.  I still won’t be throwing out my television set any time soon though.


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11 responses to “How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

  1. My husband read ‘Freedom’ and I swear that he was depressed for a couple of weeks. He said it was really a downer. I’m not sure if I’ll end up reading any of Franzen’s books but I’m still open to it 🙂


  2. I quite like Franzen’s style. He can put a pretty sentence together, and he always writes with a lot of wit. I often agree with authors like him who make a point about technology’s distracting quality and its incursion on space. However, I’m writing this from a smartphone.


  3. Hmm, buy or burn? You seem quite neutral about this which probably means it didn’t bite you and make you sigh whistfully when you finished reading.



  4. Wonderful review. I like it when bloggers highlight a novel is dated because it’s such an important feature that needs to be highlighted!

    I read and liked Freedom and I found the prose so powerful that as I approached the ending I became too emphatic with the main characters and I even felt sick or sad. I haven’t read The Corrections though, but this book of essays sounds like the perfect non-fiction reading for those of us who like Franzen.


  5. bean's book blog

    I’d pretty well given up on Franzen after the hype of Freedom and Corrections didn’t live up to my expectations. I also think he’s wordy and a bit rambly. I found that I just didn’t care enough about the characters to actually finish either one. But your review of the stories may entice me to give him another look.


  6. I didn’t care for Freedom either, though I really liked The Corrections. I think Franzen’s strength is nonfiction. I agree that he’s wordy, but so am I, so I tend to be tolerant of that. My favorite of the essays is the one (I forget the title) where he talks about reading and writing as the preferred form of connection for people he describes as “social isolates.”


  7. I am scared to read The Corrections now because of how disappointed I was in Freedom. That said, I’m open to liking someone’s prose more than their fiction, so good to hear you liked this more.


  8. I haven’t read Freedom, but enjoyed The Corrections. Sounds like Franzen’s non-fiction work is worth dipping into.


  9. Pingback: Purity by Jonathan Franzen | A Little Blog of Books

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