Collapsitarian, No


‘Wyrd goes ever as it must.’

After some weeks of letting the ideas in this essay settle in, and not reading (until now) any of the criticism of those ideas, it is more clear to me that I mistook Franzen’s position for something familiar, even close to home. Going back through my own postings on this platform, the mistake is understandable. We have been highlighting soft and gradual and mostly (but not all, by any means) comforting approaches to thinking about climate change.

I just revisited this post, thinking that Franzen’s position is like that word I heard 5+ years ago, but Franzen is not a collapsitarian. From my poking around, it is not clear that Paul Kingsnorth is one either. In that earlier post I linked to the About section on his website and it is still as funny ever, but now this:

Occasionally Asked Questions

Who are you?

I am 75% English, 25% Greek Cypriot, 100% European and 0% European Union. I share 96% of my genetic material with chimpanzees and 60% with bananas. I am descended from the Viking Earls of the Orkney Isles. I live with my English-Punjabi wife and our two children in the west of Ireland, where 85% of the men are descended from eastern Mediterranean farmers.

I’m a writer. I mainly write novels, poetry and essays.

Tell me about your writing

My non-fiction takes deep dives into big questions about how we might live in a world losing its cultural and ecological bearings at a rapid rate.

My fiction is mythological, otherworldly and multilayered, and is aimed at adults with at least one underworld journey under their belts…

It is worth reading in full, to see how his views may have changed in recent years, but mainly what caught my attention is the program of courses he has created, which look worthy of promotion, especially as captured in the photos (©Natasha Lythgoe) below and at the top:

The Wyrd School is a writing school unlike any other. Founded in 2018 by Paul Kingsnorth, an award-winning novelist, poet and essayist, with two decades of writing experience, we are home to unique writing courses, talks, and other events designed to bring the human and the non-human worlds back into contact, and to help you produce writing and art from the resulting sparks.

Wyrd is an old Anglo-Saxon word, often translated as fate or destiny. Continue reading

Imagination At Scale Is Our Only Recourse


A journalist and novelist for more than fifteen years, in 2012 Ledgard began to refashion himself as both an evangelist of radical thinking and a prophet of specific doom. Photograph by Rafal Milach / Magnum for The New Yorker

Jonathan Franzen’s relatively short, but powerful essay got my thoughts well-prepared to digest this profile of Jonathan Ledgard. The implication of Franzen’s essay struck me more clearly when Ledgard–having quit his career in journalism in favor of deeper exploration for answers to the most intractable challenges–was quoted saying “Imagination at scale is our only recourse.” Neither the essay nor the profile is comforting; but by embracing uncomfortable conclusions maybe possibilities open up:

…“You have to acknowledge that the probability of success is vanishingly small,” he said. “But if just one of these ideas came off in the next twenty years, in some form, and in a really significant way—and it improved the lives of poor people, or helped save other life-forms from extinction—then that would be really worth your time.” He added, “My main point is to move the conversation in a more imaginative direction.”…

We had heard of the drone-delivered medical services thanks to Seth’s work in Rwanda, but frankly I was not convinced back in May that it was yet in the realm of possibility. Now I am. To see the man behind it in a photo like this, which at first glance might make you think he is a bit off his rocker, is refreshing.


Outside a Czech village, Ledgard searched for wild boar, which he is studying for an immersive art exhibit. Photograph by Rafal Milach / Magnum for The New Yorker

Maybe that is what it takes to say something so clear:

“There’s a significant minority—or maybe a majority—of human beings who are biophiliac. They like living things. And that hasn’t been priced correctly.”

In The Spirit Of These Times


Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

The last time Jonathan Franzen appeared in our pages he was watching birds, which he has a habit of doing. But he has the power of the pen, more than most, to wield on topics related to the environment. At the core of his argument in this essay below he makes a point that has been the point of this platform since it started: since major environmental issues are difficult if not impossible for individuals to effect change on, we must each carry out our small, singular deeds. Highlighting good acts is an important element of that.

What If We Stopped Pretending?

The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.

“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us. Continue reading

Franzen, Watching Out For Birds

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Freedom … Jonathan Franzen (left), birdwatching with Guardian writer Oliver Milman (right) at Natural Bridges Farm, Santa Cruz, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Thanks to Oliver Milman writing for the Guardian from Santa Cruz, California with someone whose concerns about the intersection of books and technology, combined with his interest in birds and the art of watching, have led to us featuring him more frequently in these pages than most other people:

Jonathan Franzen: ‘Climate change isn’t the only danger to birds’

‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers


Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.


 Author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen, at Natural Bridges Farm where he goes to birdwatch in Santa Cruz, California, September 30th, 2018. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

“I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

“I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’” Continue reading

A Novelist, Birding, Wades In Murky Territory

FranzenWNYC.jpgIn 2012 we started a string of posts featuring him, but have not linked to a Franzen-related birding story in a while. Best in epic category was likely here. Last time might have been here. He would no doubt love Chan Chich Lodge. If you appreciate his passion for birds, you should take a few minutes and listen to this, featuring him during an outing near his home:

Before achieving success as a novelist, Jonathan Franzen couldn’t imagine doing something just for fun.  But now, he’ll spend an entire afternoon dodging puddles of manure for the pleasure of looking at birds, “these very visible, very beautiful, very intelligent bipeds who are a lot like us.” Through the “portal” of birds, Franzen says, we can get to know the natural world.  He took our producer Rhiannon Corby along on a trip to MoonGlow Dairy, near on Monterey Bay, where the birds are as plentiful as the cow pies. Watch your step!

Southward, Ho!

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I had never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. ILLUSTRATION BY BLEXBOLEX

We are happy any time this novelist takes time from his main craft to devote time to what seems to be his main personal passion, which might be identified as birding, or else more broadly speaking the environment in which birds thrive (or not). From this week’s New Yorker, another journey far away, southward, by Jonathan Franzen with an eye to environmentalist perspective:

The End of the End of the World

An uncle’s legacy and a journey to Antarctica.


Two years ago, a lawyer in Indiana sent me a check for seventy-eight thousand dollars. The money was from my uncle Walt, who had died six months earlier. I hadn’t been expecting any money from Walt, still less counting on it. So I thought I should earmark my inheritance for something special, to honor Walt’s memory.

It happened that my longtime girlfriend, a native Californian, had promised to join me on a big vacation. She’d been feeling grateful to me for understanding why she had to return full time to Santa Cruz and look after her mother, who was ninety-four and losing her short-term memory. She’d said to me, impulsively, “I will take a trip with you anywhere in the world you’ve always wanted to go.” To this I’d replied, for reasons I’m at a loss to reconstruct, “Antarctica?” Her eyes widened in a way that I should have paid closer attention to. But a promise was a promise. Continue reading


Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 7.22.04 AMOur literary bird-loving activist took it to another level, as the film (click above) testifies well.  Really, this must stop. Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for bringing this to our attention with this interview:

Cornell Lab: Where are you from, how did you find out about this issue—and what made you want to make this film?

Roger Kass: Born and raised in Bedford, New York, I have a background in law and movie production.  I first learned of the issues presented in Emptying the Skies by reading Jonathan Franzen’s story in the New Yorker magazine and wanted to make a film about it to bring these terrible truths to a larger audience.

The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is a commonly hunted species in the Mediterranean. This female safely returned to her northern breeding grounds in England. Photo by jefflack Wildlife & Nature via Birdshare.

The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is a commonly hunted species in the Mediterranean. This female safely returned to her northern breeding grounds in England. Photo by jefflack Wildlife & Nature via Birdshare.

The main characters in the movie are environmentalists and people who love animals, but they don’t seem like bird watchers exactly. What motivates them to take this interest in tiny songbirds? Follow-up question: they are all men. Why do you think there were no women?

Doug Kass: As is often the case, there were a lot of things we weren’t able to put into the final film. Most CABS members we met were very passionate bird watchers and had extensive lists of sightings, as well as favorite locations, and bucket lists. You could describe them as “extreme bird-watchers,” because unlike most birders, they come into physical contact with the birds.

If you are podcast-oriented, give Leonard Lopate a listen on this topic: Continue reading

Environmentalism, Puritanism and a Binocular View

To slow global warming, we could blight every landscape with biofuel crops and wind turbines. But what about wildlife today? CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY

Jonathan Franzen, a writer who we have chosen to link to numerous times mainly because he is also clearly a bird guy, has a small masterpiece in this week’s New Yorker. Please, read it:

Last September, as someone who cares more about birds than the next man, I was following the story of the new stadium that the Twin Cities are building for their football Vikings. The stadium’s glass walls were expected to kill thousands of birds every year, and local bird-lovers had asked its sponsors to use a specially patterned glass to reduce collisions; the glass would have raised the stadium’s cost by one tenth of one per cent, and the sponsors had balked. Around the same time, the National Audubon Society issued a press release declaring climate change “the greatest threat” to American birds and warning that “nearly half ” of North America’s bird species were at risk of losing their habitats by 2080. Audubon’s announcement was credulously retransmitted by national and local media, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose blogger on bird-related subjects, Jim Williams, drew the inevitable inference: Why argue about stadium glass when the real threat to birds was climate change? In comparison, Williams said, a few thousand bird deaths would be “nothing.” Continue reading

Technology, Activism, Discontent & Keeping It Honest

Doug McLean

It was just recently when we started noticing it on the Atlantic‘s website, and needed some time to determine the fit with our blog:

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

It took this one to make us realize the fit:

Jonathan Franzen on the 19th-Century Writer Behind His Internet Skepticism

His new book translates works by Karl Kraus, whose misgivings toward progress mirror Franzen’s belief that technology can be “very harmful” to artistic production.
 OCT 1 2013, 3:43 PM ET

We have several times linked to stories involving Franzen, and there is no question that it is in part because of his bird-loving devotions; but it is not only that.  We put ourselves in his corner a few months ago and there are plenty of paradoxes in this corner but read this to appreciate the depth of Franzen’s sense of purpose related to technology, starting with Joe Fassler’s excellent commentary:

Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, playwright, and critic of the mass media, was born in 1874 and ran the magazine Die Fackel (“The Torch”) from 1899 until his death. And according to novelist Jonathan Franzen, he was the first-ever iteration of what we might now call a media theorist. Continue reading

Franzen’s Dilemma

Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

It is going to be our generation’s contribution to the colloquial cliche; equivalent to Catch 22.  Maria Bustillos makes the best case, in the fewest and least heavy words. for a great writer to change his mind. She is compelling. But he is an activist for a good cause, so we must be in his corner, even if it is just wiping the sweat:

Jonathan Franzen has a real gift for getting people into a tizzy. This time, the fracas was occasioned by a September 13th essay he wrote for the Guardian (“What’s Wrong With the Modern World”) excoriating our “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment” and lauding the early-twentieth-century Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whose essays Franzen reveres, as a prophet for our own times. Though the essay’s specific criticisms are so familiar as to be unremarkable—he writes that Salman Rushdie “ought to have known better” than to “succumb” to Twitter, and rages against Amazon’s depredations of the book trade and the various hegemonies of Apple—in the few days since its publication, the author has been accused of irrelevance and cane-shaking, his sex life and his digestion have been impugned, and Rushdie told him to “enjoy [his] ivory tower”; he’s been called “an old windbag,” “a whingeing miseryguts,” and a “Chardonnay bore,” and has been generally dragged through the digital mud. Continue reading

Really, Cyprus?

100726_r19825_p646.jpgA couple of years ago a powerful essay by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker made us aware of and horrified about this practice.

It is so full of disgusting detail related to this practice that, should you survive the nausea you will want to click the banner below and sign the petition.

Better late than never. Exactly six weeks after this petition was started, we have stumbled onto it.  Now, nothing to do but act:

Birds, Book, Bother

From the review in Smart Set (click to book image to go to the source) it is clear that we will enjoy this collection, whose title we had already seen in another context, from a writer we already had reason to admire for his attention to birds:

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: Continue reading

Report To Greco

Man reading, Chania, Crete, 1962 (Costa Manos/Magnum Photos)

Click the photo to go to the recent post titled “Do We Need Stories?” in the blog site of the New York Review of Books.  It starts out:

Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.”

Continue reading

While The Sun Shines

The festival has the kind of illustrious history that makes it interesting enough on its home turf in Wales; its more recent evolution is a sign of creativity in motion.  Take a look at this story from the most recent iteration of the festival in Kerala, and then after the jump see more on one of the festival’s participants in Colombia last week. Continue reading