There are plenty of reasons to find Jonathan Franzen irritating. He was a jerk about having his novel The Corrections chosen for Oprah’s book club. A Time magazine cover proclaimed him the “Great American Novelist” who “shows us the way we live now.” And then there’s the writing itself: Freedom, his latest, is full of David Brooks-style clichés about anyone who ever had a charitable thought or ate a slice of multigrain bread.
But the thing that bugs me most about Jonathan Franzen is that he’s becoming the public face of bird-watching. There are many famous birders (there are lists, because birders love lists), but Franzen is probably the most famous, thanks to his novels and the essays he’s written for The New Yorker about his birding exploits. And now he’s an annoying central character in Birders: The Central Park Effect, an otherwise charming film that premieres on HBO tonight. If you’ve never seen an indigo bunting, a rose-breasted grosbeak, or a prothonotary warbler, you really need to watch this film. And if you have checked these birds off your life list, you’ll be delighted to see that this film does them justice with its stunning high-definition footage of brightly colored, perky little birds cavorting in Central Park. The film’s explanations of the birds’ natural history and behavior are engaging and economical—this isn’t a five-part BBC production with a whispered-awe narration, but a snappy introduction to a surprising subculture: the birders of New York City.
The film’s human characters (aside from Jonathan Franzen) are quirky and funny, their eyes constantly darting around after birds as they’re talking to the narrator. Here’s Chris Cooper, a handsome young black man (not all birders are white retirees) whose friends complain that they never see him from March to May. He lists seven pleasures of birding to explain why he spends migration season in the park (No. 1: the beauty of the birds). No. 7 is the unicorn effect: “After you’ve been birding for a little while, you become familiar with a bird from seeing it in the field guide, but you’ve never seen it in real life. It takes on a mythological status. Then, one day, there it is in real life, almost like a unicorn walking out of the forest.”
And here’s Jonathan Franzen on birding: “I thought it was embarrassing. I still think it’s embarrassing, a little bit. You’re basically defenseless. You’ve got your binoculars up and you’re looking at something nobody else is looking at, and everybody else is looking at you and thinking, what a dweeb.”
Jonathan Franzen, nobody is looking at you. You're in New York City. A guy in cowboy boots and underpants plays guitar for tips in Times Square, and another guy walks around town with a cat perched on his head. Carrying a pair of binoculars is not exactly letting your freak flag fly.
Franzen has written before about how mortifying it is to be a birder. He came out publicly, as far as I can tell, in a 2005 essay for The New Yorker. (It’s behind a pay wall there but available on Oprah’s website. Oprah, honey, you’ve got to stop chasing after someone who thinks he’s too good for you.) He wrote, “I had a creeping sense of shame about what I was doing. Even as I was learning my gulls and sparrows, I took care, in New York, not to wear my binoculars on a strap but to carry them cupped discreetly in one hand, and if I brought a field guide to the park, I made sure to keep the front cover, which had the word birds in large type, facing inward.”
There are plenty of things about being a birder that might seem embarrassing to an outsider. Birders have their own jargon (peeps are small, difficult-to-distinguish shorebirds; LBJs are small, difficult-to-distinguish little brown jobs, usually in a thicket; birds are often called by a four-letter code used in tracking studies, “CAGU” for California Gull, or by their genus and species name, which admittedly is a little off-putting to someone who doesn’t speak Latin). They keep odd hours and speak very softly when outdoors. They tuck their pants into their socks so ticks don’t crawl up their legs, though getting Lyme disease is almost a badge of honor for a birder, the bull’s-eye rash like a fencing scar.