Friday, April 22, 2005

16. How to Be Alone

by Jonathan Franzen

I’m a big fan of The Corrections. Not a big fan of Oprah’s choice in books, but given the hullabaloo surrounding Franzen’s ousting from her book club and given the positive recommendations from a trustworthy friend of mine, I plunked down my seven bucks without hesitancy when I saw a nice hard backed copy at Unabridged. I loved it. Something I really admire is when a writer has the ability to incorporate several entire, well-developed stories within one novel. I admire fully fleshed out characters. I admire the ability to switch between different storylines without confusion, to easily go from one engaging plot to the next. Jonathan Franzen can do that.

Which means that after reading The Corrections, I wanted to read every else Franzen had written. How to Be Alone, also picked up at Unabridged, whose praises I cannot sing enough, is a collection of the writer’s essays, pulled from his many years of work. The title of the book acts somewhat as a theme, as each essay either deals with the pursuit of being alone, ways we try to escape being alone, or how we are all, ultimately, alone. “My Father’s Brain” is an elegy to the writer’s dying father, plagued with Alzheimer’s. He mulls over his father’s “story” and how Alzheimer’s takes him out of it: “My father was an intensely private person, and privacy for him had the connotation of keeping the shameful content of one’s interior life out of public sight. Could there have been a worse disease for him than Alzheimer’s?” “Books in Bed” isn’t an ode to nighttime reading, as one might think, but a rumination on sexual language in books. “Reading a book of expert sexual instruction must rank near the bottom on the scale of erotic pastimes – somewhere below peeling an orange, not far above flossing,” he says. I think all avid readers have run into Franzen’s problem of coming across a sex scene in a book and being completely turned off by the description. There are only so many words you can use and so many ways you can describe it and most of them are silly. When he’s in bed, with a book, he just hopes the author won’t let him down.

There is also the “Harper’s Essay,” re-titled here as “Why Bother,” which Franzen prefaces in his introduction. It’s an essay on the state of the novel, on being a writer, and on being a reader and all of it being inherently solitary work. There was a discussion on the Chicklit forums about the part of this essay that describes the making of a reader. “First, the habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled’ when he or she was very young. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same,” Franzen writes, reiterating the thoughts of Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist at Stanford. But there’s a second type of reader, “There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him…and so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.” Here, Franzen, and I, feel compelled to draw the line between the young reader and the nerd. While the “classic nerd” is driven by “antisociability,” “being a ‘social isolate’ as a child does not, however, doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult. In fact it can make you hypersocial. It’s just that at some point you’ll being to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading – to reconnect to that community.”

To which I say, Amen to that. Most Chickliterati were quick to explain that they didn’t read in lieu of sociability. They read because they wanted to. A few did identify with childhood social isolation turning them on to books, but I think most of us were taken aback by the idea that we’d read only because we didn’t have anyone to talk to. Which is something we still encounter today. This is my story: My parents read all the time. We have over a thousand books in our house and the love of reading transferred over to my older brother and me (my younger brother decided reading wasn’t cool and now hates it, just like his friends). So books were always a part of my life. I went through a period late in high school and through most of college when I didn’t read much A) because I was being forced to, and 2) because I was growing up and my tastes were wildly different from my parents and I had no one to recommend good books. But toward the end of college I got back into reading and, well, by virtue of reading this blog I’m guessing you know where I stand on it now. The point is, I don’t read because I don’t have friends. I don’t read because I have nowhere to go on a Friday night. I read because I enjoy it; that’s activity in which I choose to engage myself. I read at lunch because I want to get back into my story, not because I’m waiting for someone to sit down and distract me with meaningless conversation. I’ll stay in on a Friday night because I want to finish a book, not because no one’s invited me out. Reading is the reason, not the compensation.

I think most voracious readers feel that way. When I’ve been busy and I haven’t read anything for a while I feel disconnected, like I just have to do this thing to feel normal again. You could say that when you’re with a book, you’re never alone. But really, when you’re reader, you know that sometimes, being alone can be the most rewarding state of being.

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