"Here, in fifteen essays, are fifteen fresh answers to the question of how to be alone in a noisy and distracting mass culture. Franzen shows the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life."
--The review--As a result of having studied Classics at university, the words of wisdom of Plato et al naturally line my bookshelves. In approaching the monolithic Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays, one has the same feeling of receiving wisdom: ancient, revered, but still relevant to today type wisdom.
Franzen initially hooks the 'average' reader with a sentimental but well-written and compelling essay chronicling a new approach to death and dying in the face of the demise of his father. This, however, does not set the tone for the rest of the essay collection: if sentimental writing is not your cup of tea, there are still plenty of reasons to keep reading. As well as a highly polticised essay that distinguishes between personal privacy and data protection, and an analysis of the Chicago postal system, we are treated to a whistle-stop tour via a job in Franzen's previous life for a small local exports company and a treatment of why cities still exist. As a result, the entire collection is a highly original trip through different perspectives on the notion of being alone. We are taken through the theme in ways that we would not expect, and this includes arguably the most unsavoury essay in the collection, which deals with the subject of being anti-smoking. At the beginning of the essay, as a non-smoking (and indeed anti-smoking) reader, it is easy to agree with Franzen's damning of the activity; it is therefore with dismay that we find out that he is in fact a smoker himself. While the essay proceeds in as cogent and sophisticated a manner as ever, it is somehow tainted after that with the vague hypocrisy of its author.
However, this is not enough to ruin enjoyment of the collection entirely. As previously hinted at, Franzen is an extremely skilled writer, at least in the field of non-fiction: he is lucid and erudite without alienating readers. There is truly something in this collection for everyone, and in creatively approaching the notion of what it means to be alone in our increasingly busy world, Franzen will have you asking yourself whether you are a Contract or Status reader and questioning the invasiveness of television.
The vast majority of the essays were written in the mid 1990s, with a few broaching the late 1990s and early 2000s (the collection having been published in 2002). This means that some of the essays are now over fifteen years old, and that some addenda or revisions by the author as we set sail on a new decade may make equally intriguing reading. Providing valuable brain fodder for our lives, the collection easily bears multiple readings, and could arguably take the status of a modern philosophy manual for the days of these lives where it is so difficult to be alone. Although known chiefly for his fiction, Franzen's non-fiction is just as precious to the twenty-first century's hearts and minds - if not more so.
Other works by Jonathan Franzen
The Twenty-Seventh City (1988)
Strong Motion (1992)
The Corrections (2001)
The Discomfort Zone (2006; memoir)Freedom (2010)