Farther Away - 2015 Reading Challenge

Hello, beautiful readers. How is your 2015 Reading Challenge going so far? Haven't set one yet? Feel free to steal mine. After all, I borrowed it from imgur and I don't really feel bad about it at all. In fact, it's gotten me to pick up some books that intimidate me or that I have been putting off. I've always known that I should read Jonathan Franzen. He's one of those incredibly intelligent authors, and yes there are many, whose books both interest and scare me a little. So after deciding to do this checklist, I picked up his book of essays, Farther Away,at the local library.

For those who don't know anything about Franzen, he loves birds. His love of birds leaks through nearly every page of this collection of non-fiction (which ticks off my non-fiction read on the #2015ReadingChallenge list, inserted below in case you haven't seen it).

Farther Away begins with a commencement speech he gave  at Kenyon College in 2011. He shares his self-professed curmudgeonly middle-aged man rant about our collective surrender to technology and how to like something has gone from something we feel to something we do with our thumb on the touch screen or our mouse on the computer. The theme of his address is the positive side of pain, how it grows you, and he develops this by discussing the dissolution of his marriage and his subsequent obsession with the beauty of birds.

Following this is the essay that gives the book its title, where he relays his journey to an island hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile.

In the nineteen-sixties, Chilean tourism officials renamed the island for Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish adventurer whose tale of solitary living in the archipelago was probably the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, but the locals still use its original name, Masafuera: Farther Away.

Franzen goes to this island to reconnect with himself, to see rare birds, to camp and live without technology, and to, as the cliché goes, get his head on straight. I'll admit that I love stories such as this, the stranded-on-an-island stories, even if in this case, he wasn't stranded at all. Its connection to one of the most famous novels of all time--what is considered by many to be the first English novel--is even more appealing. This is one of my favorite essays in the book.

If you choose to read this book, you'll learn a lot about bird poaching in Europe. It's sickening, actually, how many thousands of birds are slaughtered every year during their migration. For someone who loves birds as much as Franzen, I can imagine that realization and experience are even worse.

He writes about receiving a stuffed puffin head sleeve to put over one of his golf drivers, and how it inspired him to visit the factory that manufactured it in China. There he notices a marked lack of wildlife, particularly birds of course, and the overwhelming amount of industrialization across the country.

Still, he manages to observe all of this respectfully and professionally, and never throughout the whole book does he neglect to describe people: their passions, their personalities, their voices. Franzen speaks of love and human relationships in an honest, direct way that I have rarely seen in literature.

Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

I learned much from reading this book, much about literature and being a writer and about the world I live in. But what struck me most, what was written most emotionally and vividly, were the sections where Franzen discussed his friendship with the late David Foster Wallace. Franzen details many conversations with Wallace, and even shares the remarks he made at the funeral after Wallace committed suicide in 2008.

The honor and admiration, the anger and frustration, the fierce love with which Franzen speaks about Wallace is something to behold. He remembers the man that very few people really knew, moments in his life that only his closest friends witnessed. These passages are heartrending, unsurprisingly, but often quite funny.

I once heard him enthusiastically describe, in the presence of a girl he was dating, someone else’s girlfriend as his “paragon of womanhood.” David’s girl did a wonderfully slow double take and said, “What?” Whereupon David, whose vocabulary was as large as anybody’s in the Western Hemisphere, took a deep breath and, letting it out, said, “I’m suddenly realizing that I’ve never actually known what the word ‘paragon’ means.”

You may have to work some to get through this book, particularly through some of the longer, rather painful essays about bird poaching, but I do think it's well worth the journey.

I will be reviewing Harlan Coben's The Woods shortly. Reading Franzen's book inspired me to finally pick up David Foster Wallace's epic Infinite Jest (which is well over 500 pages, so that's that box ticked). It will take me a while to get through it, but it's already brilliant.

What are you reading? Here's your checklist.