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Don't Believe the Hype

Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone

Don't believe the hype. That's my motto when choosing authors to read.

If a book made Oprah's book club, don't read it. If it's featured on the Today Show, don't read it. I don't care about authors being backed by a big-money marketing campaign.

Is this a good policy? Most of the time. Am I missing out on some brilliant writers? Maybe. Usually it's a let-down to read writers who are over-hyped in the literary world. It's like dating someone who's too good to be true, and then finding out they're a child molester or they sacrifice kittens to Satan.

Should I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, the book so hyped in literary circles, nemesis of of Oprah's book of the month club? I usually wouldn't bother, but I'll read it now. In fact I plan on going to the library and reading all Franzen's writings. I've been converted. The culprit was his latest book of essays, How to Be Alone, which switched me from being a nay-sayer to becoming a fan of this author well-deserving of praise.

How to Be Alone is comprised of 14 essays written between 1994 and 2001.

In "Sifting the Ashes," Franzen writes, "I took up smoking as a student in Germany in the dark years of the early eighties. Reagan had recently made his 'evil empire' speech, and Jonathan Schell was publishing The Fate of the Earth. The word in Berlin was that if you woke up to an undestroyed world on Saturday morning you were safe for another week. Since I rated my chances of surviving the decade at 50/50, the additional risk posed by smoking seemed negligible. Indeed, there was something invitingly apocalyptic about cigarettes."

Yeah, I remember the 80s, Reagan, nuclear-war threats and the decade of snotty punk rock. I remember feeling there was no way I'd make it to 30, so fuck it all.

Franzen pulled on my heart strings with this essay because I remember feeling the world was going up in flames soon, so I'd better snort some crank and stage-dive at the show. Now that we're all still here, beaten bodied, cigarette smokers and addicted to other substances, what do we do? This is the question (and lack of a good answer) that Franzen addresses, as well as all the shit the tobacco companies have done over the years.

Franzen intends this collection to "record his movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance -- even a celebration -- of being a reader and a writer. Not that there's plenty to be mad and angry about."

I agree a little too much with his observations and rants in his other essays, regarding technology, society, culture, etc. ... do all of us authors really sit in the back of cafés, smoking our cigarettes, and writhe with general dissatisfaction?

I highly recommend this book. Ask me in a few months about his novels after I've had a chance to read them.

How to Be Alone
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar Straus & Giroux; ISBN: 0374173273
Hardcover: 245 pages (October 2002)