Quarter Life Crisis

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How to be alone

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From How to be Alone book cover How to be alone is a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen who is known for his novel The Corrections. I haven't read that novel yet but I gave it to my dad for christmas two years ago and might nick it from him at some stage. It's said to be quite good.

However, that novel is fiction and the essays in question are non-fiction, so all they probably share are a good vocabulary and some of the writing skills. Seeing that some of the essays actually are on the topics of writing novels, what they mean to their writers and readers these days, there might be a slightly stronger, self-referential connection. While Franzen does some interesting analysis in those essays they are a bit self-conscious for my taste. I also found them to be the least enjoyable and longest in the book. Too many words.

But other topics are covered as well. The book opens with My father's brain a very personal account of the author's father dying of Alzheimer that very much reminded my of my grandmother's demise – down to the details. Similarly personal but quite inconsequential is Sifting the ashes, a piece about smoking.

Other essays border on the political Lost in the mail and Control units treat the parts of the postal service and the prison system. Particularly the latter leaves you a bit uneasy. Strangely the topics coming up in this and in other essays, touching politics, capitalism, the odd SUV and so on reminded me of some of the things Michael Moore does. While both may have – ahem – a different level of literary achievement, some of the topics are the same – yet the techniques for dealing with them couldn't be more different: Moore confronts them head on, using facts, numbers and similar 'normative' approaches to show what is wrong. In a way he is playing along, using techniques common in the system he criticises.

Franzen's approach avoids the jungle of facts and factoids – rather taking everything to a more personal level. Certain forms of prison, say, just leave you feeling uneasy although formally they play by the rules. Not the way to win a proper argument – but you don't want to argue with people who employ too many lawyers. Your time may be better invested just communicating your impressions and hoping to enable people to draw their own conclusions.

Finally there is the topic of being along that is the red thread throughout the book. All the essays touch it in some way: The loneliness of losing your parents, that of solitary confinement, that of reading or writing a book. For sure the title alone appealed to me. I like being alone. It's not that I don't enjoy an evening out, but, say visiting friends a couple of days without some time on my own will wear me out really quickly.

One essay I particularly enjoyed was Imperial bedroom where the point is made that privacy not only consists of keeping things about myself private but it is similarly important for others to do the same and not bother me with their private details. Too many 'those are more details than I needed to know' moments will wear you out.

On the Saturday morning when the Times came carrying the complete text of the Starr report, what I felt as I sat alone in my apartment and tried to eat my breakfast was that my own privacy – not Clinton's , not Levinsky's – was being violated. I love the distant pageant of public life. I love both the pageantry and the distance. [... many paragraphs]

In a similar way, he problem of online security is mainly about nuts and bolts. What American activists call "electronic privacy" their European counterparts call "data protection." Our term is exciting; theirs is accurate. If someone is out to steal you Amex number and expiration date, or if an evil ex-boyfriend is looking for your new address, you need the kind of hard-core secrecy that encryption seeks to guarantee. If you're talking to a friend on the phone, however, you need only a feeling of privacy. [... many paragraphs]

The networked world as a threat to privacy? It's the ugly spectacle of a privacy triumphant. A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted. On e reason that attendance at art museums has soared in recent years is that museums still feel public in this way. After those tangled sheets, how delicious the enforced decorum and the hush, the absence of in-your-face consumerism. How sweet the promenading, the seeing and being seen. Everybody needs a promenade sometimes – a place to go when you want to announce to the world (not the little world of friends and family but the big world, the real world) that you have a new suit, or that you're in love, or that you suddenly realize you stand a full inch taller when you don't hunch your shoulders.

Unfortunately, the fully public place is a nearly extinct category.

Imperial bedroom

Bookmark: 28-03-2004 railway journey Frankfurt to Göttingen.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

May 30, 2004, 20:12

Tagged as book, essay, how to be alone, jonathan frantzen.

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