Jonathan Franzen has written essays and novels, including “Freedom,” his most recent book, and “The Corrections,” a National Book Award winner. He graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German in 1981. Through the mail, The Daily Texan asked Franzen about reading, college life, television and New York.
The Daily Texan: What and how often did you read in college?
Jonathan Franzen: I read constantly in college, but it was almost entirely for class. I don’t think I read a single extracurricular book cover to cover, except during vacation and my junior year abroad, and even then I was reading more plays than novels.
DT: How did your reading habits change when you graduated?
Franzen: As soon as I finished college I pretty methodically went about making up for the lost years. By the time I was 28 I’d torn through most of the 19th and 20th century canon, from Austen to DeLillo. Only during baseball season, when I watched far too many games on TV, did I average less than three or four hours of reading per evening.
DT: What is being 18 to 22 years old good for?
Franzen: It’s good for leaving home.
DT: How have you personally observed the world change in the last 10 years?
Franzen: I think the general anxiety level has risen in concert with the technologization of everyday life. I think the new technology is a lot like cigarettes, which people used to reach for to assuage anxiety and which of course just made them more anxious.
DT: What would you do with four years of college if you had them now?
Franzen: I don’t regret majoring in German and going to Europe for a year, but I might have tried to learn a third language and take more courses in subjects like Milton and philosophy, which are really daunting to tackle on your own.
DT: What American writers have we forgotten?
Franzen: Steinbeck is seriously underesteemed, especially “East of Eden.” Jane Smiley’s fourth, fifth and sixth books may be, too.
DT: How do you advise young people uncertain what to do when they graduate, or should middle-aged people not be advising young people on that subject?
Franzen: We should probably not be advising, but I can at least safely advise reading good novels from a variety of eras.
DT: What’s so great about New York today? How has it changed in the last 10 years, based on your observations?
Franzen: I’m afraid the magazine N+1 was only slightly exaggerating when it said that Lower Manhattan has become one large bank. Truly, the proliferation of bank branches at the expense of more interesting small businesses may be the most striking change. And then there’s the rise of the culture or cult of Brooklyn, which puts me in mind of the great Jane Smiley line about a character who has cultivated every nuance of his Norwegian heritage into “a fully realized affectation.” Then again, who wants to stay in a borough that’s become one large bank?
DT: What is the logic or explanation behind the perception that studying the humanities is a lazy pursuit compared to studying sciences, and how does that affect the way we think about ourselves?
Franzen: I wasn’t aware that studying the humanities is considered lazy. Not only is reading Joyce or Kant difficult, these days it almost amounts to an act of cultural defiance.
DT: What literature from previous decades continues to accurately describe the world around you today?
Franzen: DeLillo, certainly, saw it all coming in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Edith Wharton saw a lot of it in the first decades of the last century. Around the same time, the Viennese writer Karl Kraus was unbelievably prescient about the media-technology nexus, but I’m not sure describing the world is a primary function of literature anyway.
DT: Which fiction writers from previous decades [succeeded] in their analysis of the future?
Franzen: It’s safe to say that Arthur C. Clarke, who foresaw commuter service to the moon in 2001, did not. But again, who cares?
DT: Do you think the changes brought on by the internet make us more of a reading country, or less?
Franzen: I think there’s no question that the average attention span has suffered. But a strong enough novel will draw you into it and out of the internet world. The only question is whether you’re too anxious to let is happen.
DT: What do you advise college-age people to read?
DT: What have you gone back and re-read since you were young and how has it changed?
Franzen: Certain modes of cerebral fiction that I enjoyed in my twenties leave me cold now. But the Narnia books still do it for me.
DT: What do you think of TV today?
Franzen: I binge on stuff like “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland” and “Friday Night Lights” like crack cocaine.
DT: What are you reading right now?
Franzen: Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World.”
Published on March 25, 2013 as "Author gives personal insights".