Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Franzen Break

After my post last weekend, I got a little too sure of myself and set up this mental schedule for the Calvino Project: Finish Invisible Cities by Monday, and have the blog updated by Tuesday night. Naturally, it's taking a lot longer than I anticipated, but not for lack of effort. I've started drafting my essay on Calvino's books (see the previous update for details), and it's going to be longer than I anticipated. However, I'm going to try to get much of it finished tomorrow, and then I can move on to other books, articles, and ideas.

As much as I'm enjoying my personal discovery of the works of Italo Calvino, I had to take a break this evening. So, as I've been known to do at least once a month, I re-read Jonathan Franzen's essay "Mr. Difficult," selected from his wonderful non-fiction collection, How To Be Alone. As hard as this question is to answer on the spot, if someone were to ask me who my favorite author is, I'd have to go with Mr. Franzen.

I was first introduced to the works of Jonathan Franzen during my undergraduate years. "Mr. Difficult" was read in one of my classes during a two or three week study of William Gaddis (a name that will undoubtedly come up quite often in this blog). Franzen's brief biography and insight into Gaddis, along with arguments outlining the battle between Art (capital A) and mass entertainment in fiction, make up the essay. I remember slightly struggling in college with all the information provided in the essay, but once I learned more and devoured two of Franzen's novels (Strong Motion, The Corrections), the piece took on great meaning. I make it a point to re-read it often, whether in full or in small doses. I've read it in full at least fifteen times, and I find it very comforting when faced with either a difficult book or a long stretch of focusing on just one author (in my case, Calvino for the time being). Franzen's love/hate relationship with the works of William Gaddis often provide comfort to me as I try to grapple with other works.

As I read through it tonight, I was struck with how one of my favorite passages in the essay reflects my reading life at the moment.

"I was just happy to have a good, hard book to read, and I was impressed with myself for managing it. Following [the] pilgrimage became my own pilgrimage. The loft, for those ten days, in spite of the gurgling pigeons, was the quietest place I've ever been. It was profoundly, metaphysically quiet...I felt virtuous, as if I'd run three miles, eaten my kale, been to the dentist, filed my tax return, and gone to church (Franzen 244-245)."

Granted, I've read (sometimes unsuccessfully) books that are harder than the ones by Italo Calvino, but I'm happy. In my case, instead of pigeons, I'm reading and studying in a beautifully quiet space, accompanied by the sighs of sleeping dogs and the occasional cat walking across my stomach. Back in college, I used to hate reading in quiet places; coffee shops were always my preferred destination. This hasn't totally changed, but I've learned to appreciate serene isolation, alone with books and ideas.

Work Cited:
Franzen, Jonathan. How To Be Alone. Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Franzen.

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