Friday, February 10, 2006

How to be Alone

How to be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen, is currently at the top of my "favorite books" list, and has held that position since I read it, in the summer of 2004. I liked the book so much that I bought a spiral notebook, and began to re-read, copying down passages on the left side of the page and commenting on them on the right side. I didn't get past the first essay, but I still may go back and finish the project--I always enjoy the time I spend on it.

Here's the lead-up to the thesis of the book:

"I intend this book, in part, as a record of a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance--even a celebration--of being a reader and a writer."

and here's the thesis itself:

"The local particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays: the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone."

Franzen is a masterful writer, he turns a phrase with the best of them. I've read two of his novels and I think the essays are better than the novels. The novels tend to verge on the whimsical, the fantastic, the imaginary. The essays are firmly rooted in reality, and Franzen's reality is clear, if a little dark. He has a wonderful balance between vulnerability and clear-headed exposition.

This is the perfect book for people whose inner life (the "Read - Think") is more real to them than the outer life (the "Live"). The answer to "how to be alone" is, to me, to realize that we are participating in the culture with our reading and thinking. We are networking and creating culture, too. It's not a lonely life.


Anonymous said...

The paucity of library resources within easy driving distance usually means I don't get to read something until it is remaindered, but I've added Franzen to my future reading list. Clearly, it is right up my alley. I hope you've had a chance to look up Jung's THE UNDISCOVERED SELF, previously referenced @ Enron. I was only 15 when I first read it, and the quotation cited, more than anything else, directed my life of the mind. -Shiloh

Karen said...

I have only skimmed through Jung, but my dad was always referring to him and his concepts, so I am pretty familiar with his ideas. Thank you for the encouragement; I'm sure I would profit from actually reading the source material.

Anonymous said...

It depends on your mind set - and we all have one. I outgrew Jung some years back, but he was an important transitional element in my thinking - as well as being formative. We come to different thinking at different times in our personal growth and becoming.

One of my favorite metaphors for that process is the tale of the collector. Someone who collects, say, Chinese pottery and porcelain; amasses representative pieces of different eras and styles - and then begins to refine the collection, gradually selecting the best pieces, until it has been refined to one single piece of a blanc-de-chine, a simple white vase that epitomizes all pottery and porcelain over the millenia.

That piece, sitting alone, is not alone, but is accompanied by all the other pieces that have been its company in the mind and experience of the collector.