Wednesday, December 5, 2018


The End of the End of the Earth: EssaysThe End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”If you stand in a forest in Southeast Asia, you may hear and then begin to feel, in your chest, a deep rhythmic whooshing. It sounds meteorological, but it’s the wingbeats of Great Hornbills flying in to land in a fruiting tree. They have massive yellow bills and hefty white thighs; they look like a cross between a toucan and a giant panda. As they clamber around in the tree, placidly eating fruit, you may find yourself crying out with the rarest of all emotions: pure joy. It has nothing to do with what you want or what you possess. It’s the sheer gorgeous fact of the Great Hornbill, which couldn’t care less about you.”

I always love those moments when something reminds me of how insubstantial I am, compared to the forces of nature. The ultimate feeling of insignificance for me was to see, in a flash of lightning, a tornado, in all its beautiful glory, just off the road from where I was riding in a car. The sight of this destructive power of swirling winds inspired instant terror and awe, and as the lightning faded, the terror for me increased exponentially with the descending of complete and utter darkness. I was so unnerved I buckled my seatbelt (this was the 1980s) as if that act would shield me from the onslaught of such a power entity.

I’ve been remiss about reading Jonathan Franzen novels. I’ve liked what I have read. He has a self-deprecating style that allows me to see the human in the writer, even as he dazzles me with insightful prose. He questions his own beliefs and is a master at disputing both sides of an argument within himself. This could lead to indecision, but that doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable hazard for him. He still continues to move forward, even as he keeps a tongue pressed into his cheek to remind himself that he could be completely wrong in his assessment.

Franzen is a Bird Lister, and winged beasts figure prominently into these sixteen essays. As a gently mad book collector, I am always excited to find someone whom I can perceive to be more insane than myself. These bird listers go to great, sometimes dangerous, lengths to check a bird off their list. Franzen’s excitement at seeing a Jamaican Blackbird, or an Opal-rumped Tanager, or a Saint Lucia Black Finch are equal to my own excitement at finding a rare Graham Greene, or a bright copy of a Virginia Woolf vastly underpriced, or say an interesting appearing book by an author I’ve never heard of before. Of course, I slide my new acquisition onto my bookshelf, while he hopefully retains at least a mental image of the bird he has spotted. He might be slightly more mad than I.

Franzen’s girlfriend offers to go with him anywhere in the world. He suggests the idea of going to Antarctica, which he regrets almost immediately. He is unsure why, out of all the destinations in the world, he chose to torture her with the idea of attempting to vanquish the frozen, southern extremes of the planet. ”By this point, I, too, had a developed a vague aversion to the trip, an inability to recall why I’d proposed Antarctica in the first place. The idea of ‘seeing it before it melts’ was dismal and self-canceling: why not just wait for it to melt and cross itself off the list of travel destinations?”

I like the practicality of waiting for Antarctica to melt and crossing it off the bucket list. I’ve become more annoyed with the whole concept of a bucket list in recent years. This list has become a grand piano, suspended over my head, ready to fall on me the moment I show any weakness or hesitation in accepting an opportunity to cross something off the list. The list is not stagnant, either. As I cross things off, more things are added. It is a list that can not be conquered; by design, I am destined to fail.

The book is not all about birds, who are harbingers of the end of the end of the earth, as his title suggests, or about climate change. He also talks about his relationship with William Vollmann and his reverence for one of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton. He drops in a few mentions of writers like Rachel Cusk, whom I have not read, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whom I have not read enough of. If I read a grouping of essays and don’t come away with an expanded book reading list (which is in some ways worse than a bucket list), I am disappointed.

Moreover, Franzen delves into the research of Sherry Turkle, who explores the impact that technology is having on who we are. ”Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults, and put technology in its place.”

I have recently started feeling better about our future relationship with technology. I’ve heard more and more dissatisfaction coming from people twenty plus years younger than myself, so it isn’t just nervous old fuddy duddies, like me, who are starting to understand the diminishing returns of more advanced technology. It is the same theory as being rich. Once you reach a certain level of comfort, your happiness meter starts to plummet with the more money you acquire. What most people find is that you are happier when you are comfortable financially, which could be equated to reaching that level where technology is helping to improve your life. The trouble begins when money starts to rule your every thought or when technology begins to take over your life.

The big questions that Jonathan Franzen seems to be seeking answers to in writing these essays are, can we adapt our thinking enough to save the birds, save the planet, and in the process liberate ourselves from our own destruction? The environment should not be a political issue. Scientists are in agreement about the starkness of the facts. We should not be putting ourselves in a position where nature can bring her absolute worst against us. The tornados, the wildfires, the hurricanes, the torrential rains, the droughts are all punishments, increasing in frequency and velocity, as we continue to abuse this lovely, lovely blue planet. We, whether we want to accept the task or not, are the elected stewards, and we must make better, tougher, more responsible decisions going forward.

I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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