How To Be Alone – Review

Finished over the weekend, Jonathan Franzen’s “How to be Alone” was a quick, enjoyable read that worked to drive enthusiasm for other Franzen works and has encouraged me to attempt non-fiction myself.  Now the conditions for my reading what was roughly half the collection may not have been the best. I was back “home” in the best quotied sense of the word, I wasn’t sleeping well, I was overworked taking care of two yards and trying to see as many family and friends as possible, and I was starting to come down with some sort of respiratory problem that I had been attempting to kick to the curb throughout the week leading up to my journey “home.”

So is it fair to say that I may have been slightly out of it? Perhaps. 

But the collection of essays certainly left it’s impression on me. Franzen breezes through the stories, ranging from the emotions and impressions of his departed father after recieving a copy of his brain autopsy from his mother to his discomfort being near his recently sold childhood home when back in St. Louis to do a brief video shoot for the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Few of the essays will change the world.  What they do accomplish is baring particular insights into the condition of one individual, allowing us to find commonality in fears, in isolation, in the shackles of our own minds and the nature of our lives being an individual experience rather than a shared account.

The essays that consistently rung truest for me were the ones dealing with Franzen’s parents and his childhood home. The opening essay beginning with recieving the autopsy report on his dead father’s brain, a “perk” of having taken part in a study a number of years before,  and the essay about returning home and having to do a shoot for Oprah while being confronted with the specter of his childhood home resonated with me. Perhaps it is because I am from the midwest, have lost a number of family members recently and have been in the process of cleaning out my grandmother’s house (granted, while she’s still living in it). Returning home has been a return to a cemetary, in a literal sense, and then returns to homes where I no longer entirely fit and where thoughts of mortality have had a habit of lingering over my own sleeepless head.

In other words, I just get what Franzen’s saying or I am able to take what he is saying and twist it to apply to myself enough to think I get what he is saying. It is something that great spewer of words, Thomas Wolfe, so succinctly summed  in five words, “You can’t go home, Again.”  Franzen says the collection is united by the title, all essays coming back to central theme of being alone, but I think the backbone of the stories isn’t so much as how to be alone as our struggle to overcome it.


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