After all [of the chaos surrounding him], does Franzen the Great American Novelist succeed, in his new collection, in drowning out the noise that threatens to subsume his reputation? Hesitant yes ... The title essay is excellent... In fact, all the bird bits are good ... Elsewhere, though, Franzen falters. The Wharton piece, originally published in the New Yorker, should have been revised — the relationship between her alleged plainness and the question of sympathy in her books is, frankly, ill-developed. Perhaps it was a failure of irony, but a musty chauvinist air still lingers ... His avoidance of easy answers has always made Franzen worth reading. Coupled with a self-consciousness that appears to second-guess his critics, it makes his work stimulating even when it isn’t comfortable.
When something really captures his interest, Jonathan Franzen is an engaged and engaging reporter. Which is to say, two essays in his new collection, The End of the End of the Earth, truly expand one’s knowledge of the world ... That makes it more the shame that he usually opts for something much easier ... But if Franzen’s travel writing is unexceptional, it’s better than his political essays, which suffer from being under-thought and over-emoted, the chief feeling often being a kind of self-absorbed peevishness ... One reason Franzen wants to concentrate on immediate conservation tasks is that he’s more or less given up on fighting climate change ... As [Franzen] points out, individual action at this point will not amount to much; all the more reason for thought leaders like Franzen to join in building movements to prevent the worst outcomes. Bitching about those who are making the attempt seems a sad waste of precious time.
As a preface to a collection that is told entirely in a mostly likable, self-dramatizing personal voice, Franzen suggests that he was raised 'with a midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself' ... The...two pieces of advice he was given by his editor were these: 'every essay, even a think piece, tells a story' and 'there are only two ways to organize material: ‘like goes with like’ and ‘this followed that’.' He goes on, of course, to employ those simple-sounding dictums in supple and seemingly effortless ways ... The article of hope or faith that...Franzen... still cling[s] to is the idea that serious, humane thinking and writing, of the kind that teases out the truth of the world, can still generate enlightenment ... It does so—as...[this collection] of essays nimbly demonstrate[s]—by allowing you to watch and enjoy another mind confront the world at its most problematic. It feels like a dying art.
But by refusing to hope for the impossible [regarding climate change], Franzen, improbably, manages to produce a volume that feels, if not hopeful, then at least not hopeless ... This is not a collection that wastes time attempting to persuade us of the reality of the climate crisis; frankly, we’re way past that ... But as the pages turn and the feathers pile up, it becomes harder and harder to keep the murres, taikos and storm petrels straight in your head – or, finally, to invest too deeply in the differences. Yet there are essays in which the balance between form, content and voice is perfectly struck, and when you reach one of those, it’s clear that you’re in the presence of a master ... [The title essay is] the work of a writer at the top of his game – limber and lovely, delivering deep insights with delicacy and grace – and it poignantly makes the only case for climate action that has any chance of succeeding: that there is so much worth living for.
This isn’t a book of literary essays; it’s a book about birds. But the collection is only marketable on the strength of his fame as a novelist — as a literary mind ... most of these essays are plainly functional ... So who is Jonathan Franzen? Is he, as The Guardian has it, 'a literary genius for our time'? Not on the strength of these essays. But he is a clever man who cares sincerely about important things, and we should be wary of dismissing him... There may come a time when we wish we’d paid more attention.
At one point in these essays, he concedes that he sometimes comes across as 'an angry bird-loving misfit who thinks he's smarter than the crowd...' This is correct. But the other piece of that description, the part about love, is also present, and it's what makes this collection worth reading ... [In one essay, Franzen's] vulnerability makes it suddenly easy to read him less like a prestigious author being arbitrarily cruel about strangers — and more like he sees himself, someone disappointed and hopeful and heartbroken about all of the ways that we treat the earth and each other ... This collection becomes beautiful when he finally gives us permission to care about him.
Franzen begins his fourth collection of personal essays with praise for how the form invites 'honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas,' qualities he masterfully demonstrates in 16 thought-provoking narratives in which he flies against the prevailing winds of common assumptions and expectations. A birder, Franzen travels the world to add to his life list, a mission that enmeshes him in environmental conundrums as he celebrates the wondrous variety and beauty of avian species and seeks to understand the myriad threats against them.
[Franzen's] willingness to show some vulnerability is refreshing ... Franzen retains an earnest side ... Franzen’s laid-back reporting is so good that by the end of The End I was searching Google for guidebooks on birds in my area ... [Franzen is] so focused on what’s in people’s hearts — on their nature-loving bona fides — that he largely ignores the systems that perpetuate climate injustice. Loving nature, as Franzen and so many others claim to, is sort of like saying you are not racist or have lots of black friends. It does little to fix a problem like structurally racist housing policy.
[Reading the book] is like being scolded, repeatedly, by someone who is clearly very smart and successful but who is so disdainful that you can’t do anything but reject everything he tells you. Also he likes birds ... But the thing that makes [Franzen's] essays so hard to take is one of the things that makes his novels great. Namely: Franzen is incapable of seriously considering the idea that his way of seeing and approaching the world might not be the absolute best, the clearest, the most efficient, morally pure, and aesthetically pleasing way possible ... Dear reader: Together, we have just spent four paragraphs arguing about the correct way to feel about birds. This is what The End of the End of the Earth has reduced us to ... The book does, of course, offer all of the pleasures to be found from reading an author as accomplished as Franzen. His sentences are crisp and clean and well balanced, and when he writes literary criticism, he can be deeply compelling ... But by and large, The End of the End of the Earth is so cranky and so condescending that it’s enough to make you want Franzen to abandon nonfiction altogether.
About half of the 16 essays are about birding, and sometimes there’s the feeling, All right, enough with the birds! But his birding expeditions allow him to engage with much more than birds — environmental issues and climate change particularly. Often there’s a pleading, if not a preaching tone to these sections, and because we’ve become so inured to dire prophecies regarding the melting ice caps and rising sea levels, these bits come off as rather banal. But then, bam, he hits with something profound ... And here’s where Franzen is at his best. Not when he’s analyzing politics, defending himself against gratuitous attacks from the orthodox left, playing spokesman for environmental causes, or kvetching about social media, but when he causes us to call ourselves into question, and look more deeply at what we’re doing with our lives.
This collection meanders in topic, being drawn from various articles and speeches from the past five or so years, but there are three major threads in its warp: the future of the planet, the state of public discourse, and Franzen himself ... The fact remains that Jonathan Franzen is a hell of a writer. No matter what demographic identity or social connections have buoyed his career, it’s impossible to honestly say that his ubiquity on bookstore shelves isn’t due, mostly, to his breadth of thought and talent for expression ... He commands a prosaic muscle as astonishing as Usain Bolt’s hundred-meter dash, and that is why we read him—casual offenses, chauvinism, and bird flu notwithstanding.
Franzen loves birds – obsessively, rhapsodically, methodically — and for some years now, he’s been on a list-keeping crusade, recording all the far-flung avian specimens he’s sighted ... Why should we care? Franzen presents one reason. He believes that birds 'usefully indicate the health of … our ethical values' ... As he swings from disdain for others to cringing at his own shortcomings, [Franzen] makes a gift of his foibles — at least on the page. The End of the End of the Earth makes the most of them.
The language is simpler, the conclusions are clearer [than Franzen's previous collection of essays, How to Be Alone]. He sounds like he’s expressing himself, and having a good time, rather than instructing us. It’s like he’s looking at the moral duty in seeing and appreciating these worldly problems, but realizing that he doesn’t have to solve them ... The End of the End of the Earth, though an occasional strain for readers who don’t share Franzen’s affection for birds, communicates a compelling voice from a speaker who’s well-intentioned, well-studied and considerate, but hopelessly aloof.
In Franzen’s smart, often witty new essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, he doesn’t so much embrace his curmudgeon image as unpack it ... Some of the book’s essays focus on varied subjects, such as technology, friendship and literature... But most of the essays migrate back to Franzen’s obsession with birds ... And when he catches sight of some of the rarest birds, he’s lyrically ecstatic.
The best of the short pieces in The End of the End of the Earth is the title essay, which braids Franzen’s memories of his beloved Uncle Walt with an account of a luxury expedition to Antarctica with his brother ... Franzen’s glimpses of global birds often are similarly fleeting [to the grace in certain stories]. He compulsively keeps annual lists of his avian sightings ... Beyond his lists, Franzen is stirred by birds — their haunting mix of grandeur, fragility and exquisite adaptability. He is disturbed by climate change, but more so by the pressing human threats to their existence ... [Franzen] is at his best when he lets down his guard and allows a hint of genuine emotion to pierce his cool intellectuality.
There are plenty of opportunities to weep in The End of the End of the Earth – mostly for the birds – a collection of crystalline thought pieces and nonfiction stories. Even when you find yourself wagging your head in disagreement, you have to admire the work that went into the writing ... Though versed in birding, he makes no claims on being an expert: He makes mistakes, he maintains a life list, something a higher sort of birder would consider déclassé ... Franzen writes elegant essays without being prim because he is too idiosyncratic and opinionated for that, and his opinions are the kind that inevitably will ruffle feathers, which are the best kind.
The End of the End of the Earth teems with exotic avian life, but don’t be scared off if, like me, you can’t tell a flappet lark from a bar-tailed godwit. Franzen... is just as eloquent when writing about friendship, technology and other novelists. Though the subject matter of these pieces varies widely, they’re united by a belief that, in our fragmented, increasingly absurd world, paying close attention — to the planet, to books, to those we love — is perhaps the most meaningful thing any of us can do ... In these subtle, nondidactic, immaculately written essays, [Franzen is] just encouraging us to look up from our screens.
Franzen’s third collection of recently published essays and speeches sparkles with intelligent and insightful forays into a limited range of subjects ... Witty, reflective, opinionated essays from a writer with the ability to 'laugh in dark times.'
A compulsive need to find order, and a love of birding, represent two of the central threads of this stimulating collection of previously published essays from novelist Franzen ... Franzen muses about writing, Edith Wharton, climate change, Antarctica, the photographs of Sarah Stolfa, and birds, always birds ... Whether observing the eerie beauty of Antarctica or dispensing Ten Rules for the Novelist, Franzen makes for an entertaining, sometimes prickly, but always quotable companion.