Some ten years or so ago, a book of essays caught my eye on a Barnes & Noble sale table – How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. This was after publication of The Corrections. I had not read any of Franzen’s novels, but the title of the essay collection caught my attention. I generally avoid like the plague books with “How To” in the title, but being where I was in life at the time (a subject for another post), I bought it. One of my better decisions.
The essays are very personal – Franzen reveals much about himself. They are also elegant, poignant, funny, despairing of our noisome modern culture, and mournful of “the obsolescence of serious art in general.” Franzen notes in the introduction:
The particulars of content matter less to me than the underlying investigation in all these essays – the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture: the question of how to be alone.
While every one of the essays is worth reading and regular re-reading, one in particular resonated with me – the famous (so I learned) “Harper’s Essay” published originally in the April 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine, revised for the How to be Alone collection and re-titled “Why Bother?”
“Why Bother” did a lot of things for me. It diagnosed my depression and self-inflicted isolation as “depressive realism.” I liked that – so much more intellectual and philosophical sounding. I now understand that it’s not me who is sick, it is the world, and that my reclusiveness is actually a healthy resistance to functioning in such a sick world. As Franzen says, “Instead of saying I am depressed, you want to say I am right!”
But still, he says, “all the available evidence suggests that you have become a person who’s impossible to live with and no fun to talk to.” Yes, well, so be it.
In “Why Bother” Franzen also discusses his interviews with Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, a MacArthur Fellow, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford. She was, he says, the “beacon in the murk” that helped him get back on track as a writer. At the time of Heath’s interviews with Franzen, she was studying the audience for serious fiction in America, “which novelists like to imagine [as] a ‘general audience’ – a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book.”
Heath’s extensive research, however, pointed to something quite different. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she said, two things have to be in place:
1. The habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled’ when he or she was young. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same.
2. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader. Young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. ‘A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,’ she said. ‘If the parents are smart, they will forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her. Otherwise, she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader.
Interestingly, Franzen remarked that he did not even meet the first criteria, that he did not remember either of his parents ever reading a book when he was a child, except aloud to him, and as to peer readers, he remembered only discovering two friends in junior high school with whom he could talk about J.R.R. Tolkien.
Without missing a beat, Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.
Readers of the social-isolate variety (Heath also calls them ‘resistant’ readers) are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety. If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness.
Franzen says that he felt that Heath was looking straight into his soul: “And the exhilaration that I felt at her accidental description of me, in unpoetic polysyllables, was my confirmation of that description’s truth. Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”
In a letter to Franzen, discussing his (Franzen’s) conflict between feeling that he should “Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream” and his desire to write about the things he felt closest to, the things he loved, Don Delillo 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.
Reading Franzen’s essay was like a lightning bolt of illumination. I was that “social isolate” as a child. My mother would take school library books away from me and tell me to “go play with the rest of the kids.” Ours was not a reading household. I remember finding a good hiding place to read under the high front porch of our rented house, cool and shaded in the hot summer. But my mother found me out eventually – she always did. Thus it was early on that I realized that I was different and – in my mother’s opinion – not in a good way.
Like Franzen with Shirley Heath’s research, I felt exhilaration when I read his essay, and I was glad I had been that isolated child, slipping into my imaginary community every chance I could get. Glad that I still am.
To be recognized for what we are, simply not to be misunderstood, to save ourselves, to survive as individuals. Why bother? How can we not?