Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

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Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An intriguing wander through why solitude matters and how hard it is to come by.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2018
Publisher: Random House Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1847947666

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This is not the book I was expecting it to be. For some reason I expected it to be another self-help manual on how to find calm, how to step outside the mainstream, but it is not that at all. Instead of telling us how, it is more about the why. Harries examines how we're eroding solitude, which used to be a natural part of our human life, and why that matters. Of course he talks about how some people have found solitude and what has come of that, and eventually in the final chapter he talks about his own experience of having deliberately sought it out, but mostly he wanders down the alleys and by-ways that his thinking about this lost art led him.

Of course the ability to wander down alleys and by-ways is partly what solitude is all about. It is what it facilitates. Being alone. Being quiet. Pondering. Pondering is not the same as thinking. Thinking is active and focused and seeking an outcome. Pondering, an old friend of mine used to say, is basically what you do when you start on the edge and just look into the pond to see what's there. It's a lovely metaphor, but A. meant it absolutely literally. His garden pond was where he did all of his contemplation, down by the reeds, listening to the frogs, watching the dragonflies.

I've often remarked that I can tell how important a book is to me by the number of turned down corners. I resisted turning them down in this case, because it's a borrowed book. Instead there is a forest of post-its outgrowing the pages.

Rather than trying to summarise the book, let me take you through some of the ideas that these markers take me back to.

The first is that there seems to be a taboo around the very notion of solitude, the idea that it is something one might prefer. We make up excuses not to attend events because of the social approbation resulting from a sorry, I just feel like staying home tonight. I can understand that. When I said I wanted to spend my first Christmas after my partner's death 'home alone', I got a number of responses, but most of them were either relief (that they didn't have to pick up the load), or offers of 'you know where we are if you need to…' (caring enough to be willing to) or just confused surprise. Only a couple seemed to understand that I would choose to be alone.

It isn't something that Harris addresses, but I am increasingly coming around to the idea that part (by no means the major part, but not an insignificant part) of the current epidemic of loneliness is because we have lost the ability to distinguish between aloneness and loneliness. The former is a soul-precious gift that we should all indulge in at times, the latter is a state that has nothing to do with whether we're in company or not.

Harris' way of putting it is that solitude is more than a lost art, it is a precious resource, he says, that can be harvested or hoarded, but can also be despoiled. Much of our modern modes of living do the latter. We allow our solitude resource to be syphoned off by false connections, unnecessary activity. The resource is nothing more than empty space and empty time, and this book is an extended look at why we should husband it well. Not hoard, but cultivate and utilise.

Much is often made of the fact that humans are social animals, less prominence is given to the work like that of Ester Buchholz who insists that we are not born social, rather we are socialised as we grown. We are born instinctively wanting to connect, but equally wanting to be alone. Modern society stigmatises the latter – it makes you odd, or eccentric, or worse, if you choose to prioritise solitude over relationships. But if both are necessary, then in the individual the balance of necessity must vary.

We're introduced to Donald Winnicott who talks about the paradox of how we learn to be capable of solitude. It is, he maintains, through the knowledge of being loved or even of having been loved (presumably because that lets us know we are capable of being so again) that we learn to be absent from the love-giver. We can enjoy solitude, he seems to be saying precisely because we know we can connect and that others will want to connect with us. To be happily alone interprets Harris is to affirm one's faith in the love of others.

My notion of pondering v. thinking is touched upon when Harris gets to Kalina Christoff's idea that a well-tuned mind included an interplay between concentration and stream of consciousness. Kalina explains to him that we are encouraged to concentrate but actively discouraged from the wide-ranging modes of thought we experience in solitude. She expounds the value of day-dreaming which is essential to the generation of new insights. Analytical thinking is ideal for weighting options in a well-defined problem [she explains] But that power is also its weakness…Analytical thinking is antithetical to inspiration.

If we don't want to take Christoff's word for this, Harris goes on to cite Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Peter Higgs (scientists all) who also claimed that ability to sit quietly, alone, was essential to their discoveries.

If this is the case, why don't we do more of it, this sitting alone and pondering? Because we are being sold a lie. All of our modern technology is built on connection, not least because that's the business model, the profit generator, but beyond that all of current business thinking is built on collaboration, partnership, team-working, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whilst that last idea may be true…it doesn't allow for the fact that each of the parts might be better if it disconnected occasionally, hit the 'metaphorical machine shop' for some down time, re-greasing, psychic renewal: a re-boot.

What Harris discovers is that no matter how much you get this in principle, finding the art of doing it is a whole other ball game. The simple fact is that we're not Einstein or Newton. It won't make us a Picasso or a Rossetti. Sitting in a garden is unlikely to help most of us to an earth-changing insight. Nor should we expect it to. That is not the point of it… but it is sometimes the by-product.

We get treated to an examination of style, by way of Quentin Crisp, Alfred Hitchcock, an anonymous woman on a subway train - a riff on the lost art of writing love-letters – a look at how our hyper-connectivity is the enemy of true connection and also how it erodes our sense of self as we are bombarded by things to like, just as our ability to think is being eroded by newsfeeds driven by what we've read before, rather than what we might like if we ever stumbled across it – we wander through the backways of what it means to be human and whether we can cheat death. I particularly loved the section on maps and the ever-increasing reliance on GPS and phone-maps which undermines the whole point of travel: the uncertainty of it, the joy in managing to find your own way. I'm always thrilled when I've found my way in a city on instinct and landmarks and road-signs without recourse to a map of any kind, but when I need one, I'd much rather have a piece of paper. Again, it's connectivity depriving us of connection. I remember numerous times when I've asked for help and have walked away with a hand-sketched map on a scrap of paper. I'm sure that if now I asked someone to draw me a map, they'd get out their phone and just show me…but they wouldn't let me take their phone away with me…so I'd lose something in the encounter, worse, I would need my own phone and then there'd be no point in the encounter, so I wouldn't ask. This is the paradox. Hyper-connectivity is depriving us of solitude, but at the same time by being hyper-connected we are becoming more alone.

We lose the bliss of getting lost. We also lose the different perspectives that come from drawn maps. We have sold them for a single google-centric view of the world, and there is a dangerous power in that.

For all of this, Harris is no romanticiser of a lost age. He fully understands that having a choice about being lost is a good thing. He merely explores what we lose if we give up that choice in favour of being always tracked, always locatable. Down the centuries the creatives have always walked, wandered, and out of wandering and wondering comes insight.

Eventually he starts is own experiments in solitude, tentatively at first, but then deliberately seeking fully disconnected time alone, off-track, in the back of beyond. What he finds there I will leave you to discover for yourself. For me I long ago learned what Rilke expresses so well I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other – and in that regard I have been truly blessed.

I urge you to read this book – better yet, take it somewhere quiet alone and read it all the way through in one silent solitudinal wondering, pondering afternoon.

If you're looking for more books on how to spend your time, I recommend Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days by James Wallman.

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