After finishing Freedom (a lovely Christmas present), Jonathan Franzen’s name remained on my reading radar. Browsing in a glorious bookshop in DC, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill, I found a collection of his essays entitled How to Be Alone. I tend to lose touch with the limits of my pocketbook whenever I walk into a bookstore, so of course I purchased more than I should have. And I am much alone these days; Franzen’s title caught me eye. Being alone: generally a status we might try to avoid. But in the silences, we learn to listen. In the stillness of being alone, the imagination, paradoxically, awakens. Words most often provide the catalyst. Franzen’s wordsmithing delights me. Today I find his essay, “Imperial Bedroom” on my ‘next up’ list, and so I dive in. The subject matter? Privacy. And legalese. No end of irony, right?
Taste for yourself:
“The right to privacy — defined by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, in 1890, as “the right to be let alone” — seems at first glance to be an elemental principle in American life. It’s the rallying cry of activists fighting for reproductive rights, against stalkers, for the right to die, against a national health-care database, for strong data-encryption standards, against paparazzi, for the sanctity of employee email, and against employee drug testing. On closer examination, though, privacy proves to be the Cheshire cat of values: not much substance, but a very winning smile.
Legally, the concept is a mess. Privacy violation is emotional core of many crimes, from stalking and rape to Peeping Tommery and trespass, but no criminal statue forbids it in the abstract. Civil law varies from state to state but generally follows a forty-year-old analysis by the legal scholar Dean William Prosser, who dissected the invasion of privacy into four torts: intrusion on my solitude, the publishing of private facts about me which are not of legitimate public concern, publicity that puts my character in a false light, and appropriation of my name or likeness without my consent. This is a crumbly set of torts.” (Franzen 42 – 43)
First, Franzen teaches. I love that about writers and reading. Always an available, open classroom — a place at the table of learning. Secondly. Torts. Immediately I think of my lawyer son, who has tried, bless his heart, on numerous occasions to enlighten me on the subject. I keep thinking about desserts when he starts talking. Strange.
Mostly, what I love in this tiny little excerpt is that tiny little line, “this is a crumbly set of torts.” So sweetly delicious in its imagery, commentary, and word play. Better than cake. A delectable treat, is Franzen. Perfect on days when I am learning to be alone.