‘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.