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.
Franzen has somehow managed to swallow his shame long enough to have developed considerable skill as a birder and to experience true joy in nature, at least fleetingly. But even this joy brings Franzen agita: “My response to this happiness, naturally, was to worry that I was in the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong. An addiction. Every morning, driving to an office I'd borrowed in Santa Cruz, I would wrestle with the urge to stop and bird for ‘a few minutes.’ Seeing a good bird made me want to stay out and see more good birds. Not seeing a good bird made me sour and desolate, for which the only cure was, likewise, to keep looking.”
More troubling still, Franzen doesn’t seem to always abide by the good birder’s code of honor. His 2005 essay begins with him thinking he’s spotted an extremely rare bird (well, rare in the United States, which matters for people who keep a list of birds seen in the country) and reporting it to the visitors center at a birding hotspot. Despite a creeping doubt about whether he’d really seen a masked duck and not a more common female ruddy duck, he lets other birders chase after his phantom and never admits that he made a mistaken identification. He could easily have added a line to the log that it was a probable or possible sighting, but he’s determined to bag that bird. He even goes to the trouble of calling the visitors center from a friend’s phone to disguise his identity while he asks if anyone else reported the duck.
It’s pathetic to fake it as a birder. It’s cheating at solitaire—nobody else really cares whether you have a genuine masked duck on your life list. If you don’t get a clear look at the stripes on a bird’s cheek, try again later. Take a look at a different guide book. Ask another birder for help—they’re really very generous people. If a birder schlepped a telescope a mile through a haze of mosquitoes to see a white-faced ibis, and if you come along with a pair of binoculars and can’t quite make out the field marks, the birder with the scope will share. That’s why there are rare-bird alerts and log books at visitors centers—birders are ridiculously cooperative.
They can also be ridiculously misanthropic. There’s nothing like spending years chasing birds to make you notice habitat fragmentation, climate change, and overpopulation. It’s one thing to wish abstractly that more people enjoyed the great outdoors, and another to have your solitude ruined by a troop of Boy Scouts trailing Milky Way wrappers and scaring away all the birds. Franzen shares this misanthropy, and he’s come by it honestly, by noticing humans’ impact on the natural world. Freedom’s bird-loving character—Walter, a former Nature Conservancy lawyer who gets outsmarted by Big Coal—shares it too. But Walter is so absurdly misanthropic and crazed, such a caricature of a conservationist, that he makes birders look not just embarrassing but unhinged.
In a New York Times essay last year, Franzen pitted his love of birds against the disengagement and rush-to-judgment brought on by using sites like Facebook. He wrote that actually doing something (birding, participating in bird conservation efforts) made him more aware of environmental problems. The essay also covered love, and the alienation caused by technology, and ugly arguments with a romantic partner—it was a little over-thought and overwrought. Still, it’s nice that he loves birds and that he’s bringing attention to their plight.
But in birding, as in life in general, don’t be like Jonathan Franzen. Don’t let neurosis, self-involvement, and pride inhibit your enthusiasms. Be like Chuck McAlexander, a machinist in Birders who makes bird feeders out of coconut shells. Be like Starr Saphir, who schedules her chemotherapy appointments around her bird walks in Central Park. Here’s what she says about birding: “Looking at birds takes away sadness. … When you look at the natural world, it puts things in perspective and makes you forget about yourself.”