Book review – Solitude by Michael Harris


I really wanted to love this book, but, as interesting as the many topics Harris covered were, I felt that the book veered into crotchety, distracted old folk territory.

Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World starts with a good overview of what solitude is (not loneliness, for the record) and why it’s important to have some time to ourselves on occasion (including time away from our smartphones). Harris discusses the benefits of solitude in the context of children (it helps them develop self-governing skills), thinkers (having time to consider your ideas before sharing them), and the general public (consolidating thoughts may help us to find a sense of meaning and happiness in our lives).

“… because whoever can do nothing, letting his thoughts go where they may, must be at peace with himself.”

I didn’t agree with everything he said. For example, he seemed fairly convinced that only miserable artists will succeed, which is utter nonsense. While I understand that dissatisfaction can lead to creativity through what Harris calls attempts to “build a bridge”, I don’t think that you have to be miserable to be an artist, successful or not. I think that happiness can foster creativity. Perhaps being content with how things are can be a road block – if you don’t see a need for change or a need to add another voice, then you may not be inclined to create something. But, the idea that an artist needs to be dissatisfied to be successful seems a bit black and white. In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert is firmly against the trope of the tragic artist. She notes that it is possible to enjoy making art and that we shouldn’t fetishsize suffering or mental health issues. And, I agree with her.

But, back to Harris’ thoughts on solitude. He also discusses the fact that we should all be able and comfortable with making our own decisions, which can be hard when we’re constantly plugged into the rest of the world (whether that being through social engagement or social media). One of his points struck a chord for me: “… then the choices we make online about what books to read, what songs to listen to, what movies to watch become less independent and more manipulated.” This happened to me over the past two years with regards to books. I went from “oh, hey, that sounds like a good recommendation. I think I’ll read that” to “she says it’s good, so I must read it.” That’s why so many of the books that were on my unread shelf at the end of last year were so easy to get rid of – they were good books with great reviews, but I was only going to read them because they were good books, with great reviews.

Unfortunately, it’s at about this point in the book when I felt that things were starting to go sideways. It felt like a lot of the discussion in the latter half of his book was really just him complaining about cultural evolution. Things have changed, technology has been developed, some innovations have affected our privacy and how we connect. Some of this is good, and some of it is bad, but I felt like Harris was cherry-picking examples to whine about kids these days. For example, he had a long discussion about people who’ve never written a snail-mail letter or used a typewriter before, but completely neglected to look at the people who are embracing such things (not just in terms of the hipster culture, but also in the context of simple living).

Later in the book, Harris started to talk about our failing bodies and death. This where I got lost. I couldn’t figure out what any of this discussion had to do with solitude. It was an interesting discussion about mortality and technology, but I couldn’t find the connection to solitude.

In the end, Harris did swing back to the topic of solitude, but I was a bit disappointed in some of the things he said. It felt like he was imposing his own feelings or assumptions on how we should seek and experience solitude. For example, he discussed the balance between being alone (solitude) and being with others (real or virtual). Overall, the discussion was interesting, but it felt like he assumed that there was a set ratio: you need 1 hour of solitude for every 3 hours you spend with others. But, that’s not true. The kind of company you keep (strangers, friends, friends you can be “alone” with) will affect how much (if any) alone time is needed afterwards. So will the kind of person you are – an extrovert will need (and want) far less solitude than an introvert.

I was also disappointed when he suggested that there was a right way to seek solitude. He used Thoreau and the unabomber as examples, which suggests that if you do it wrong, you’re going to become a domestic terrorist, which is silly and alarmist. There are many ways to be alone, and there are many reasons to be alone. Both of these men chose solitude for different reasons. How the unabomber found his solitude may have exacerbated he’s isolation and extreme thoughts, but it didn’t necessarily result in his actions. In other words, running off into the woods alone isn’t necessarily going to turn someone into murderer.

Overall, I found the book to be fairly interesting (I even wrote enthusiastically about the idea of “rediscovering” ourselves a few months ago), but I did feel that it suffered from a lot of scope-creep (turning off into topics that were only loosely related). It’s worth reading the first half, but it’s certainly not Harris’ best book.

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