Quotes from Jonathan Franzen

A few weeks ago I re-read Jonathan Franzen‘s collection of essays titled How to Be Alone partly because I was feeling lonely at the time and partly because Franzen was best friends with David Foster Wallace and so it felt timely to think about Wallace through one of his influences.

I highly recommend this collection of essays especially if you’re interested in issues of “self” and how literature / writing plays with that notion and the broader relevance of literature more generally. Franzen’s prose reads effortlessly. He intersperses light thoughts with deeper philosophical ones. He’s like Wallace in his interest in both the day-to-day absurdities of living life and the harder / impossible questions that some brave souls puzzle over. He’s unlike Wallace in that he executes his writing in a comparatively conventional way — linear sentences, no fracturing.

I’ve typed my favorite quotes and excerpts from the essays below. Some great lines. Enjoy.


“One of the great adaptive virtues of our brains…is out ability to forget almost everything that has ever happened to us.

“One of the basic features of the mind is its keenness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts.”

“Americans care about privacy mainly in the abstract.”

“The curious thing about privacy…is that simply by expecting it we can usually achieve it. One of my neighbors in the apartment building across the street spends a lot of time at her mirror examining her pores, and I can see her doing it, just as she can undoubtedly see me sometimes. But our respective privacies remian intact as long as neither of us feels seen. When I send a postcard through the U.S. mail, I’m aware in the abstract that mail handlers may be reading it, may be reading it aloud, may even be laughing at it, but I’m safe from all harm unelss, by sheer bad luck, the one handler in the country whom I actually know sees the postcard and slaps his forehead and sdays, “Oh, jeez, I know this guy.”

Philip Roth described “American reality” as a thing that “stupefies…sickens…infuriates, and finally…is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents…”

“In Philadelphia I began to make unhelpful calculations, multiplying the number of books I’d read in the previous year by the number of years I might reasonably be expected to live, and perceiving the three-digit product not so much an intimation of mortality as a measure of the incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life.”

“Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them. If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialized religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications?”

“As the social stigma of depression dwindles, the aesthetic stigma increases. It’s not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. It’s the sense that we live in a reductively binary culture: you’re either healthy or you’re sick, you either function or you don’t. And if that flattening of the field of possibilities is precisely what’s depressing you, you’re inclined to resist participating in the flattening by calling yourself depressed. You decide that it’s the world that’s sick, and that the resistance of refusing to function in such a world is healthy.”

“Two quick generalizations about novelists: we don’t like to poke too deeply into the question of audience, and we don’t like the social sciences.”

“What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure.”

“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.”

“Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.”

“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.”

“To take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be.”

“New York is resented as an actual place — for its rudeness, its arrogance, its crowds and dirt, its moral turpitude, and so forth. Global resentment is the highest compliment a city can receive, and by nurturing the notion of the Apple as the national Forbidden Fruit such resentment guarantees not only that ambitious souls of the “If I can make it there, I’d make it anywhere” variety will gravitate toward New York but that the heartland’s most culturally rebellious young people will follow.”

“The city, by its very nature, provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange. Familiarity, whether of chain stores or of cookie-cutter subdivisions, erodes the autonomous intelligence and, in a weird way, undermines privacy. In the suburbs, I’m the stranger; I feel exposed. Only in a crowded, diverse place like New York, surrounded by strangeness, do I come home to myself.”

“One pretty good definition of college is that it’s a place where people are made to read difficult books.”

“The essence of postmodernism is an adolescent celebration of consciousness, an adolescent fear of getting taken in, an adolescent conviction that all systems are phony. The theory is compelling, but as a way of life it’s a recipe for rage.”

“In a sense, I’m proud of not being like everybody else. Like everybody else, though, I’m anxious about sex, and with sex the recognition that I’m not like everybody else leads directly to the worry that I’m not as good as — or, at any rate, not having as much as — everybody else. Sexual anxiety is primal; physical love has always carried the risk that one’s most naked self will be rejected.”

“This is the conundrum of the individual confronting masses about which he can’t help knowing more than he’d like to know: I want to be alone, but not too alone. I want to be the same but different.”

“When we make love, we forever have in our heads an image of ourselves making love.”

“Few pleasures compare with that of riding on a bus after dark, hours behind schedule, with people you violently agree with.”

3 Responses to Quotes from Jonathan Franzen

  1. Dario says:

    thanks for these, I haven’t read much franzen. I got that you enjoyed the collection, but did it live up to the promise of the title? are you more comfortable being alone than you were before you read this?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    The thoughts on how to be alone are more meditative than prescriptive. It’s not a how-to book. I’m already comfortable being alone, usually. The essays helped me think through why solitude can be important. But the “how” in the title is misleading!

  3. Franzen can write well, but it’s what he has to say in these quotes that drives me up a wall and exhausts my patience. He’s certainly got it right about the essence of postmodernism– the destructive self-reference and nihilism that destroyed David Foster Wallace– but he plainly suffers from that very psychosomatic dis-ease (of postmodernist writing) which he deplores.

    It’s this continual restless introspection, never resolving the search for meaning, and manifested by so many present-day writers, that “stupefies…sickens…infuriates” the adventurous reader and is so often toxic to the well-being of the disaffected author.

    Reaching inward is most emphatically not the way out of loneliness. Franzen has it ass-backwards, and his sort of pseudo-wisdom makes me want to scream, “Enough of this nonsense. Wake up, you fool!”

    How sad that even as children we know that happiness isn’t to be discovered within, but is found outside ourselves, and then we so soon forget what we were born knowing.

    The postmodern attitude is not a “recipe for rage”. It’s a soul-destroying, suicidal tool for deadening the senses and dulling the mind. The act-or in life who’s most involved with the world, not himself, is the one who feels emotions, including rage, most poignantly.

    So when I read such thin gruel as this: “physical love has always carried the risk that one’s most naked self will be rejected”, I could retch. It’s true that we all have our insecurities about sex, but it’s hardly self-affirming to express them in this trite, hopelessly banal way.

    With what soul-deadening, weak language Franzen talks about the very act that offers us our greatest ecstasies of the flesh, the very act that allows us to transcend ourselves in ‘cosmic’ union with another human being.

    With all due respect to someone I admire, Ben Casnocha, I have to say that writing like Franzen’s is truly “a very [pathetic] celebration of consciousness”.

    Give me a writer who has a lust for life– someone who grapples with it in all their flawed humanity– but isn’t afraid to lay claim to whatever unsought divine grace the universe bestows on him or her.

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