Fourth Estate, £16.99

Farther Away, By Jonathan Franzen

Grumpy, passionate, committed: the US mega-seller still keeps faith with literature.

Jonathan Franzen's garlanded fourth novel, Freedom, sold almost three million copies in 2010, stark evidence that the old printed book survives. Its author has proved himself a bitter enemy of the new-fangled. He called Twitter "unspeakably irritating"; suggested ebooks are "not compatible with... justice and responsible self-government" and, in his commencement address to Kenyon College's Class of 2011, reprinted in Farther Away as "Pain Won't Kill You", decried Facebook as a "private hall of flattering mirrors."

Franzen lives up to his Grumpy Old Man rep elsewhere in this non-fiction miscellany, but his tirades against gadgetry and golf are somewhat more nuanced than those of, say, a Top Gear presenter. His principal complaint about the mobile phone, for example, is that it has debased the words, "I love you", by making them ubiquitous: "When I'm buying socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts 'I love you!' into her little phone, I'm powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted."

Though he resents "late-model" technology, he fetishises it, too – in particular, his BlackBerry, "which lets me deal with lengthy, unwelcome emails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I did it with my thumbs."

Franzen's 2003 essay collection How to be Alone provided welcome context to his novel The Corrections. Farther Away contains essays, reportage and reviews, and is a fine standalone tome, but also a behind-the-scenes glimpse, a guide to the author's state of mind around and soon after the writing of Freedom. One of the novel's protagonists was an environmental campaigner and bird-lover, and here "The Ugly Mediterranean" takes Franzen to Cyprus, Malta and Italy to report on the annual songbird massacre.

Birds are the impetus for much of his journalism. In China on the trail of a puffin-shaped golf accessory, he finds habitats decimated by industrial development, but also a band of committed local twitchers and environmentalists. The most ambitious piece here is "Farther Away", for which he travels to a remote, uninhabited South Pacific island to see the rare Masafuera rayadito songbird; to re-read Robinson Crusoe; and to scatter some of the ashes of his friend, David Foster Wallace. The resulting piece mixes intrepid travel journalism with an early history of the novel, and a meditation on loneliness and boredom.

Franzen's 2008 eulogy for Wallace is included here. In his reviews, he champions lesser-known or lesser-selling writers such as Douglas Antrim, Alice Munro and Paula Fox; and better-known ones, such as Dostoevsky, one of his beloved Russians. He's awfully pessimistic about the passing of great literature. "Haven't we all secretly sort of come to an agreement," he asks, "that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?"

He takes writing way more seriously than some would consider sensible, and dishes out rules accordingly: "All serious writers struggle" – he insists in "On Autobiographical Fiction" – "with the conflicting demands of good art and good personhood." His admonishment of modern novelists for their over-use of "Comma, then" will have aspirant "serious writers" furiously Ctrl+Fing their manuscripts for the offending grammatical hash. But the world of literature, besieged as he believes it is, needs authors who care. And Franzen really cares. His attitude might be aggressively highbrow, but his underlying concerns are simple and humane: family, age, grief, love.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine