I did not want to read Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom. It's an Oprah pick, and the big 'O' on the cover smacks too much of daytime television product placement, and that's probably the worst way to encourage me to read any book.
Nor did I feel compelled to read Freedom when I heard that Barack Obama requested an advance reading copy. Or did he actually take the presidential motorcade to a bookstore to buy one? I don't know the details, but either way, I heard Obama said it was great.
I love BBC's From Our Own Correspondent podcast, but I still wasn't inspired to read Freedom when Mark Mardell quoted the novel in his story about the American Tea Party: "Jonathan Franzen perhaps sums it up aptly in his new best-seller when he says, 'The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.'"
No, I did not want to read Freedom, not until I saw my wife Maggie enjoy it so much, curled up in the passenger seat of our car, while I served as designated driver on long trip.
Mostly quiet, Maggie would unexpectedly snort and laugh and exclaim, "This has a character from Bob Dylan's hometown in Minnesota. He says Dylan is a 'beautifully pure asshole!'"
Then, with the same sheepish grin she had when she told me that James Franco was hosting the Academy Awards, Maggie confided, "This says that during the Lewinsky scandal millions of American women would have slept with Bill Clinton in an instant. Huh!"
And further down the road, Maggie reported, "Hey, this is sort of grotesque. One of the characters has a habit putting his wedding ring in his mouth and sucking on it, but then he accidentally swallows it and has to wait to poop it out before he can get it back."
At that, I thought to myself, "Hmm, what an intriguing analogy of marriage."
Back at home, after she finished Freedom, I tried to tell Maggie about how much I liked Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Maggie looked through me and sighed, "Why don't we ever read the same books?"
That's when I figured I should not dismiss a book just because it has a big 'O' on the cover, not any more than I should read it just because it has an 'O'.
So I checked out the 562-page doorstop from the library and dug in expecting the great American novel. For the next several evenings, whenever Maggie asked me what I wanted to do after the kids went to bed, I scowled, "Enjoy my Freedom!"
Of course, it turns out Freedom is great. Hundreds of years after Oprah and the rest of us are dead and forgotten, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom will be regarded as one of the great novels of our times.
Well, it's more of a satire of what a great novel should be. The plot is more cartoonish than believable, and the characters seem as concerned about flip-flops and iPods and their dubious relationships as they are about society or politics or the environment.
But that's exactly why it is great. Freedom is about flawed people struggling in an absurd world, and Jonathan Franzen captures that struggle perfectly, just like a "beautifully pure asshole" would.
Maggie, what should we read next? I'll check the Oprah picks!
~Mike, Adult Services