“The welcome paradox in How to be Alone is that the reader need not feel isolated at all. . ..This collection emphasizes [Franzen's] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion's.” —The New York Times
“Why be alone? For the pleasure of reading books such as this.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Franzen critiques the alienating effects of postmodern America with just as much passion as he displays in his fiction. . .he cuts to the truth with razor-sharp precision. . . These essays offer a great reason to turn of the TV and spend the evening alone, lost in thought.” —Time Out New York
“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 postal 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
“There is here the eloquence and sensitivity and profound personal engagement that is only possible with the printed word--and, even then, only when it has no fear of being literature. Put Franzen among the living heroes of it.” —The Buffalo News
Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be AlonePrint
The shock of recognition
By James Santel
May 11, 2015
I first read How to Be Alone, a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen, when I was 15—before I knew who William Gaddis was, or could define “postmodernism,” or understood the difference between realism and experimentalism. In other words: before I knew much about literature, or why it matters.
I knew a little. An English teacher at my high school in St. Louis, recognizing me as a slightly shy and sensitive young man, had pointed me to an essay he thought I’d like. It concerned a shy and sensitive young man’s high school years in St. Louis; its author was Jonathan Franzen.
Enthralled, I picked up How to Be Alone. Franzen’s literary arguments were lost on me, but his personal reflections were not. At the time, my grandfather was battling Alzheimer’s. My dad and I had just moved my grandparents from the house they’d lived in for 30 years, and I was coming to realize that I would not always be young. Reading Franzen’s essays about his father’s ordeal with Alzheimer’s, or about packing up his childhood bedroom, I felt the shock of recognition. I was coming to understand what words can do.
When I finally met Franzen at a book signing in St. Louis during my senior year, I handed him my copy of How to Be Alone and asked for advice about becoming a writer. In response, he wrote on the title page, “For Jim: For God’s Sake! Come to Your Senses!”
Eight years later, I still haven’t.
James Santel served as a speechwriter in the Department of Justice from 2015 to 2017. His essay “Kodachrome Eden” appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the Scholar.