In his book, How to be Alone, Jonathan Franzen had plenty of shit to say about TV, its evils, its disposability and its capacity to take people’s attention away from better activities, eg literature-making. If you work in the television industry or if you’re simply a couch potato, you will hate him very much. But apart from his numerous ruminations on subjects including the American postal system, sex books marketing, smoking and TV segment pre-production, not a lot of the shit he so extensively wrote about in his collection of essays will interest you. But that is not say that you shouldn’t ever read him.
With the exception of privacy thievery and his widely publicized beef with TV’s undisputed queen of talk, you may actually be wishing, halfway through it, that the book be a self-help instructional on becoming alone instead. This is at least true for readers who are not crazy about America, or are from any Third World country, buy books from bargain bookstores, and readers who are immune to the intellectualizing of mundane topics.
On a side note, Franzen is the author who fell out of Oprah’s favor when the latter chose his great novel, The Corrections, as her official selection for her book club back in 2007. Franzen does seem like a jerk but his would-be Oprah Book Club book is truly great, truly deserving of the National Book Award and all its other awards. It is for me, the literary equivalent of the film The Royal Tenenbaums which ranks among my favorite dysfunctional family stories, along with that other great Dysfunctional Family story, Frannzy & Zooey and sometimes, Raise High the Roofbeam & Seymour: An Introduction.
His perceived assholeness, not completely unearned, is clearly manifested here but he doesn’t seem to care for people who are already so convinced of said jerkiness. On the subject of depression, Franzen nails it good and hard:
Even harder to admit is how depressed I was. As the social stigma of depression dwindles, the aesthetic stigma increases. It’s not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. It’s the sense that we live in reductively binary culture: you’re either healthy or you’re sick, you either function or you don’t. And if that flattening of the field of possibilities is precisely what’s depressing you, you’re inclined to resist participating in the flattening by calling yourself depressed.
This essay collection is clearly not an instructional on Being Alone. It is instead a series of very long essays that you get nuggets of other forms of How To’s and How Not To’s way more interesting than being alone.