Jon Franzen’s bird problem

Monday, November 6th, 2006 | All Things, Books

Much of bird watching is about disappointment. Part of the appeal is that really, more often than not, you don’t see what you’re looking for. The great pursuits are more about failure than about success.

— Jonathan Franzen, Time magazine (August 20, 2006)

I added SYB’s “plus one” to tonight’s Nature Conservancy event, but en route up Columbus Avenue, he got a better offer from AC, so I ended up attending solo.

Author Jonathan Franzen was at the New-York Historical Society auditorium to share insights about his ornithological troubles. The event was an odd — or at least: not obvious — pairing; Jon was scheduled to appear, it seems, based on his essay, titled “My Bird Problem” which first appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. The essay is also included in his recent memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.


I’ve been reading Jon’s book in snippets, since picking up a copy at his last appearance at the 92nd Street Y. I’m ever more impressed by Jon as a writer; his work speaks of such intelligence and wry wit. At the same time, I can empathize with his anxious nerdiness. There are those, however, who are somewhat less entranced. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, famously (and rather harshly) dubbed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.” Still, with a few glaring exceptions, reviews of the book have been generally favorable.

In “My Bird Problem,” Jon offers a genuinely funny glimpse into his adventures as a nascent bird-watcher, cleverly combining stories about his hobby with rueful remembrances of his marriage in collapse, life in New York City after 9/11, reluctant concerns over global warming (after attending a lecture by Al “Inconvenient Truth” Gore) and cultural criticism regarding upper-middle class environmentalism. Somehow, it works. To be sure, as Jon himself noted that night, the subject of bird-watching has high potential for comedy: the very idea of the special binoculars, the stealthy creeping, the self-imposed physical discomfort… all for a fleeting glimpse — or perceived glimpse — of some particular bird variety or another, for the primary purpose of checking names off of a master list.

But the titular problem is not the inherent ridiculousness of the venture. Rather, despite the author’s normally tight rein on his environmental consciousness, heretofore confined to the ten minutes per year when writing “guilt-assuaging checks to groups like the Sierra Club” — or The Nature Conservancy — he is forced to confront the idea of “not the world’s falling apart in the future, but my feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present.”  The truth is inconvenient indeed.

Jon was quick to point out by way of introduction, that he was no bird expert — more an enthusiast, and a recent one at that. The talk, moderated by the Nature Conservancy scientist and author, Phillip Hoose, was loosely structured around Jon’s discussion of three bird species he particularly likes — the piping plover, the LeConte’s sparrow and the bittern — and relating anecdotes about his experiences with them, complete with audio and visual aids.

Hoose and Franzen


Apparently, Jon has an affinity for sparrows, which he likened to writers, in their quiet plainness — small, unobtrusive observers of the landscape, seeming too delicate for this world.

Incidentally, I didn’t quite grasp the night’s overarching theme — part interview, part presentation — though it did draw some necessary attention to grass roots conservation efforts.

Though it was not a literary event per se, Jon did stay on afterwards to sign books. I didn’t have one with me that night — and didn’t want to risk a repeat of our last meeting — so after the talk, I slipped out quietly for the short walk home.


There are 6 Comments ... Jon Franzen’s bird problem

November 16, 2006

Stupid Knicks.

November 18, 2006

Jon’s remarks equating bird watching and disappointment, and on his fears and unpopularity when he was young are interesting.

November 18, 2006

It’s kinda like baseball. Even the best hitters fail more than 2/3 of the time. It’s kinda like life.

November 18, 2006

…or like the Knicks. 😛

November 18, 2006

Jon is going to appear on the Sunday, November 19 episode of The Simpsons.

“Moe ‘N’ A Lisa”: When Homer forgets Moe’s birthday, Moe’s anger inspires Lisa to write about him for her school report. She finds a poetic side to Moe and helps him get published in “American Poetry Perspectives.”

In addition to Jon, the episode will feature celebrated writers Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal — all guest-voicing as themselves. Awesome!

November 19, 2006

I’ll be sure to record it (we usually do).

Go for it ...