Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
A novel is a bird. I learned this from Jonathan Franzen. It is the underlying message of his newest collection of essays, Farther Away.
Franzen became a bird watcher many years ago. He is almost apologetic about that fact, realizing that — in the opinion of most normal human beings — the birdwatcher is a slightly pathetic if otherwise harmless individual. In his commencement address at Kenyon College, “Pain Won't Kill You,” Franzen writes:
It's a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it is 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.
From his usage of words like “passion,” “obsession,” and “love,” it's obvious Jonathan Franzen thinks birdwatching is neither pathetic, nor, more importantly, is it harmless. For Franzen, birdwatching is a big deal. Paying attention to birds can change you. It can transform your sense of self and the world. Franzen knows this because it happened to him.
Many of the essays in Franzen's book therefore touch on the subject of watching birds. A couple of essays are explicitly about birdwatching, which Franzen has done in Cyprus, on an island in the South Pacific known as Masafuera, and in China, among other places. Franzen has become a defender of the birds. He is appalled by the killing of birds and by the destruction of their natural habitat. He laments with great pathos the lusty shooting of migrant birds that is a favorite pastime of the people of Malta. But what does it mean, this birdwatching, and why does Franzen keep coming back to the theme of birds over and over in his essays?