How to Be Alone Essays

Jonathan Franzen




Trade Paperback

320 Pages


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A New York Times Notable Book

While the essays in the this collection range in subject matter from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each one wrestles with the essential themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civil life and private dignity, and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Reprinted here for the first time is Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the fate of the American novel in what became known as "the Harper's essay," as well as his award-winning narrative of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and a rueful account of his brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author. This paperback edition of How to Be Alone has been revised and expanded to include the recent essay "Mr. Difficult."


Praise for How to Be Alone

"Captivating . . . The welcome paradox in How to Be Alone is that the reader need not feel isolated at all. The author makes himself a colorful presence throughout these essays complete with his slew of improbably attractive quirks . . . Mr. Franzen frequently celebrates the realization that being alone with a good book is the very opposite of an isolating experience. With considerable wit and minimal curmudgeonliness, he also laments the scarcity of such experiences in a culture that is co-opted and consumed by non-literary temptations. He admits to being enough of a purist to think longingly of times when 'a new book by Thackeray or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a late-December film release inspires today' . . . This collection emphasizes his elegance, acumen, and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion's."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"How to Be Alone reaffirms the novelist's prerogative to engage in social criticism. And Franzen's calm, passionate critical authority derives not from any special expertise in criminology, neurology, or post science, but rather from the fact that, as a novelist, he is principally concerned with the messy architecture of the self."—The New York Times Book Review

"Franzen is one of the most nuanced minds at work in the dwindling republic of letters . . . Do good books matter anymore? This one does."—Time

"A graceful meditation on reading and writing in a digital age . . . Franzen probes two very simple ideas: 'the movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance—even a celebration—of being a reader and a writer' and 'the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture.'"—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Altanta Journal-Constitution

"Franzen believes the monolithic quality of the U.S. media, its jingoistic flattening of complex issues and the rush to hop on the information superhighway are a constant assault on the internal lives of Americans . . . These are essays about the pain of being an American in a time when the means to alleviating pain threaten to dehumanize pain itself, when the means for entertaining ourselves have become so sophisticated it's almost hard to complain. There's some boldness, then, in how Franzen reclaims his pain on the page, owning up to it and, as any good journalist will, making it our own, too."—John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle

"Although Franzen calls them 'essays' many of these pieces are reportage. He's good at it . . . All these pieces place both writer and reader on firm ground . . . He goes out on many a limb (as essayists should) and gives us a good many things to think about, such as the blurring line between private and public behavior in the age of the 24-hour news cycle."—Dan Sullivan, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"How To Be Alone impresses with the consistency of its concerns . . . As he bemoans the decline of the engaged social novel, of the city, of the US post office, Franzen risks sounding at best like a fogey, at worst like a scaremongering Luddite; but this is counteracted by wit, aphoristic flair and a critical awareness of the ironies of an accelerated culture; where cutting-edge writing is forced to react against, refuse, resist the advance of cutting-edge technology . . . His next move is going to be fascinating: poised between the twin abysses of celebrity and neglect, which way will he jump?"—Paul Quinn, The Times Literary Supplement (London)

"If Franzen had not been anointed to the Higher Calling of Literature, he might have made a terrific journalist . . . Two of the reportage pieces are models of the New Journalism."—Roger K. Miller, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"Franzen is a charming and sagacious writer, even an important one, a man who cares about literature and who cares about the problems of modernity—race, urban sprawl, corporate hegemony. Books matter, is the final message. A keen intellect is at work here, even though Franzen often seems to be arguing with himself; perhaps How to Be Alone is most brilliant when the author is arguing with himself. Jonathan Franzen has a restless mind and we are better for it."—Corey Mesler, The Memphis Commercial Appeal

"Why be alone? For the pleasure of reading books such as this."—Entertainment Weekly

"A collection of essays diverse and entertaining . . . Smart, solid, and well-paced: a pleasure for Franzen's many admirers."—Kirkus Reviews

"[Franzen] demonstrates his remarkable capacity for evaluating the American scene . . . The journalistic pieces included in the book show that Franzen ain't afraid to face facts . . . Essays covering the tobacco industry and the 2001 presidential election, as well as consumerism and the nature of privacy in America, offer rare evaluations of the modern world as we know it."—Bookpage



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MY THIRD NOVEL, The Corrections, which I'd worked on for many years, was published a week before the World Trade Center fell. This was a time when it seemed that the voices of self and commerce ought to fall silent—a...

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  • Jonathan Franzen - Le Conversazioni (2006)

    Jonathan Franzen talks about writers of his "generation" and his community.



  • Jonathan Franzen

  • Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels—Freedom, The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion—and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. He has been named one of the Granta 20 Best Novelists under 40 and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper's. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.

  • Jonathan Franzen Shelby Graham
    Jonathan Franzen