Jonathan Franzen: Liking Is for Cowards.

Jonathan Franzen

by Gunnar on May 30, 2011 · 3 comments

in Birding News

Bestseller author Jonathan Franzen is a birder

Jonathan Franzen is a very famous modern American author praised by the critics and awarded many fine nominations and awards. He has been compared with Tolstoy.
Or so I am told, because I have not read him yet. I’ll be frank to you. Two months ago, I did not even know who Jonathan Franzen was. I have really not been up to date on the American literary scene the last decade. But since I got the iPad, I have gotten new interest in reading fiction. Still had it not been for my grown-up daughter’s aspirations to become an author, which made me help her starting two blogs about her own and others literary process, I would not have found Jonathan Franzen for years (see this post about punkrock big year and my daughter’s blogs).
While researching topics for my daughters blog, I come across Jonathan Franzen’s manifesto of 10 rules of writing for aspiring authors on a blog called 101 books. On that same blog was a review on his masterpiece  The Corrections which caught my eye and made me decide that I really wanted to read this author.
Today, I learn that Jonathan Franzen is a fanatical birdwatcher.  The New York Times just published a summery of the commencement speech from Kenyon collage where this is revealed.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.

BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.

How does this happen?………..(continuation)

Read the rest of this article at New York Times.

Franzen talks about passion and love, and that liking in the narcissistic Facebook way is not enough.

Here is a short video where Franzen tells us about his birding.

His newest novel Freedom (featured on Oprah’s Book Club) is also regarded a masterpiece – and one of the characters Walter is a birder and a fanatical conservationist.

I also found this great interview from Grist in December 2010 in which the environmental passion of Walter is discussed.

Q. Is Freedom an activist book? Do you hope that readers will come away with more of an appreciation for the natural world after reading it?

A. In general, I try not to do overt advocacy with my writing. If it’s a byproduct, and people become aware of an issue because it’s part of the story I’m telling, that’s great. But it’s not the primary motive.

The one small part of the book that had an actual activist motive was the very end, where we’re introduced to a predatory housecat that’s running outside and killing songbirds by the scores. When it occurred to me that I could end the book with the main character Walter’s problems with this cat, I realized that I could also perform an educational service. Most people aren’t aware of the degree to which free-roaming outdoor cats are a problem in this country. At least a million birds a day are killed by them, so we’re talking about a minimum of 365 million birds in America alone in the course of a year — perhaps as many as a billion. So there was an educational impulse there.

Q. I found your “My Bird Problem” essay in The New Yorker to be moving and persuasive. I finished it and thought, “Man, I need to go scout some birds!” Walter’s a birder, but his relationship to birds isn’t attractive in the way that your own birding stories are. Do your activist motives play out in your nonfiction more than in your fiction?

A. It’s a tricky thing. As a reader, as soon as I sense that I’m reading a piece of straight-up environmentalist advocacy, I put the piece of writing down. I feel like I’m already the converted, so don’t try to convert me. Tell me something interesting.

Even in nonfiction, I don’t want to take a purely advocating stance. I’m trying to complicate things. “My Bird Problem” is an essay about how I went from a general pissed-off concern about the environment to a very specific, positive passion for birds, which are part of the environment. Of course, it was also an opportunity to bring along readers who might not have thought about birds so much before. That’s a real and potentially useful secondary effect. But my primary responsibility to the reader is to say, “Look, this stuff is complicated — trust me, I’m not here to beat you over the head.”

You can read the rest of the interview here and don’t miss the link to My Bird Problem above…. It is absolutely brilliant!

Maybe, I should excuse myself of not having heard about Franzen’s birding since I live in Peru. But it also strikes me a bit odd, that I have not noticed Franzen being shared by birders on Facebook and Twitter and on the blogs I read. Maybe, I was not paying attention. How about you?

Now I can’t decide whether to start with The Corrections or Freedom? Have you read them? Which do you recommend?

Finally, here Franzen is tested. He knows his birds….and he is excused for the Chickadee.


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  • Lmk88

    I’ve been following Franzen since last year when I read Freedom. There are reasons, perhaps, that people who’ve read his book did not go ‘gaga’ over the fact that he’s a birdwatcher. His work is much too deep to reduce to one cool fact…this latest work is not about birds or the environment at all but of things that resonate so strongly that they chew on your insides for week, months afterwards. The whole birdwatcher thing is comparatively irrelevant. And I’m guessing, based on interviews I’ve read, that he’s not too keen in sharing this very personal fact with the world or being a public champion for our cause. 

    That’s my two cents.

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Thanks for the comment Laura. Yes, I understand that the book is deeper than just birds. However, I am not so sure that he minds sharing that he is birder. After all, it is all very clear in the biography he wrote. The Discomfort zone.
      Here is an excerpt
      http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/My-Bird-Problem-by-Jonathan-Franzen/print/1

  • Charlie

    Gunnar, about this time last year Franzen wrote an absolutely superb piece for the New Yorker on the killing of songbirds on Cyprus – he actually went there, witnessed the trapping, went to restaurants selling ambelopoulia etc. It was incredibly well-written. I’m not sure if you can find the article without having to pay the New Yorker to get access, but Google ‘Emptying the Skies’ and you’ll find at least parts of it.

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