“The first thing that reading teaches us is how to be alone.”

Note: The following post shall be more of depository for random oohs and aahs and quotables than anything else. So, if you want the summary: Yes, I liked this book a lot. Hee.

The first thing,” the author writes, “that reading teaches us is how to be alone.” To be alone. To read. To get lost in a book, purposefully or unconsciously. “Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in the pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.

I suppose I can safely say that I like Jonathan Franzen a lot. There was a time that wasn’t cool, but bah. His chunkster The Corrections swept me away, and I’m waiting for the right alignment of the planets before I get into Freedom. It was while I was reading The Corrections that I got myself his books of essays How to Be Alone [in my post about the former, I also discussed the essay “My Father’s Brain,” which shed a lot of insight into the narrative, the characters, the whole meat of the novel].

[Ah, The Corrections. How difficult it was for him to get over that book. Not only with the daunting task of having to follow it up — but, well, how its acclaim resonated too long and too intensely, and how it crippled him. He seems so haunted by the success of that novel. A lot of these essays feel like he’s taking deep, calming breaths. And I know now, with the praise heaped upon Freedom, that I’m genuinely happy for the guy.]

The essays are so Franzen-esque. I don’t know what that means, really, it’s just that it’s right that he wrote those essays the same way that it was right that his fiction, to me, is so awesome. So. The essays cover a wide range of subjects: politics, sociology, culture, history, literature. I was particularly curious about his views on that last one — on the reading and writing of literature. I wanted to know if his poetics were as complex and meaty and true as his fiction was, or whether it would be spare, to-the-point, firm. I wanted to know if his essays would make gasp and giggle and scratch my head and curse the way his novel did. I just really wanted to know more about Jonathan Franzen.

* * *

How could I not feel estranged? I was a reader,” Franzen says. “My nature had been waiting for me all along, and now it welcomed me. All of a sudden I became aware of how very hungry I was to construct and inhabit an imagined world. How could I have thought that I needed to cure myself in order to fit into the “real” world? I didn’t need curing, and the world didn’t, either; the only thing that did need curing was my understanding of my place in it. Without that understanding — without a sense of belonging to the real world — it was impossible to thrive in an imagined one.” Ah, but I sought a cure. Depression was an impediment to living. It’s a draining of the ability to care that I possessed in me an impediment to living. Perhaps it’s more selfish, more trivial — that I sought a cure because, as much as I would like to, I do not just read and write through life.

How open he is about his depression — first, how central it is to his The Corrections, and now, in his essays, how seamlessly he weaves the presence of that black dog in his life into his literature. Brave enough to put it in fiction, admirable still, from this viewpoint, to write about it under the contract of “Dear Reader, this is all true.” See:

Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression’s actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it.

Writers and readers have always been prone to this estrangement. Communion with the virtual community of print requires solitude, after all. But the estrangement becomes much more profound, urgent, and dangerous when that virtual community is no longer densely populated and heavily trafficked; when the saving continuity of literature itself is under electronic and academic assault; when your alienation become generic rather than individual, and the business pages seem to report on the world’s conspiracy to grandfather not only you but all your kind, and the price of silence seems no longer to be obscurity but outright oblivion.

I hope you are well, Mr. Franzen.

* * *

I know that what I like best about Franzen is how in love he is with the art, how much he respects it. And, well, how strongly I agree with his views on the subject: “Fiction is the most fundamental human art. Fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” And also: “Fiction, I believed, was the transmutation of experiential dross into linguistic gold. Fiction meant taking up whatever the world had abandoned by the road and making something beautiful out of it.” Writing is serious business with this guy. I love him all the more for that.

His appeals speak of this: To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t this a lot? Why write fiction? Why bother, indeed? Who cares anyway? And even as we ask this, why do we feel that there is so much at stake? Why read it?

[Don de Lillo and Franzen are penpals. Great. In a letter to Franzen, de Lillo wrote: “Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”]

* * *

Franzen distinguishes between the Status Model and the Contract Model of literature — particularly, fiction — that is, how the text relates to its audience, as manipulated by the author. So, basically, the relationship between writer and reader through the written word.

The Status Model, where: “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel exists independently of whether people are able to enjoy it . . . it invites a discourse of genius and historical importance.”

Meanwhile, the Contract Model, where: “the novel represents a compact between the reader and the writer, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing this entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group . . . Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust . . . The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.”

Franzen is quick to say that these models are highly subjective, and that there are books that straddle both types — both a work of art and a deeply personal experience.

Franzen is both. For a writer to tell you, “Think of the novel as a lover: Let’s stay home tonight and have a great time, just because you’re touched where you want to be touched, it doesn’t mean you’re cheap; before a book can change you, you have to love it,” and for you to experience the embodiment of these words first-hand — the application of that belief, of his poetics — wouldn’t you attest, however sheepishly, I suppose I can safely say that I like Jonathan Franzen a lot.

7 thoughts on ““The first thing that reading teaches us is how to be alone.”

  1. I like Franzen a lot too, and I really enjoyed this book. I have to say, though, that I love Emperor Franzen on twitter — I can love Franzen and love people who make fun of him both, right?

  2. I do love that quote–and love how reading can be so much of a personal private thing as well as a social one, around the fire with family as Man says, and with the warm blogging community as well. Lovely post.


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