Sunday, 25 June 2017


Finished June 10
Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

This book caused me to stop and think many times. Following the introduction, the book is split into four sections, with the first two sections having two chapters and the latter two four chapters. In the introduction, Harris tells us of one of his inspirations for the book, finding out about the amazing experience of Dr. Edith Bone. Bone was imprisoned in Hungary in 1949 on her way back to the airport to fly home to England after a visit to family. It took some time for people to realize she was missing, and then discover what happened to her. She was in solitary confinement for seven years. Instead of going mad, or breaking down, she found ways to occupy her mind and emerged "a little wiser and full of hope."
Her story set Harris to thinking about the art of being alone, and to examine how our culture works against this ability. The first section looks at what people do when they're alone, how they occupy themselves. He finds that technology has filled those times that we used to have alone with attachments to others. If we disconnect from it, we often worry about what we've missed. The move towards social media and the sharing economy has only increased the need for connection. So he looks at what happens when we lose that capacity for a rich inner life. He finds that even though the capacity for solitude has decreased, the spread of loneliness has increased. As the saying goes, you can be lonely even in a crowd. Connection in the way that we now define it doesn't overcome loneliness. In fact, it can actually emphasize the feeling.
Another negative impact of the loss of solitude is the loss of the "ability to engender new ideas." The "aha" moment isn't one that normally occurs in a group, but comes to us as we let our brains loose to explore without reining them in. Loss of solitude also negatively impacts self-knowledge.
In the second section he looks at research around solitude, and the skill of daydreaming. I remember being criticized by teachers and even sometimes family for daydreaming. Luckily, instead of stopping, I just became better at stepping away from others to engage in it. I need my time to myself to either sit with myself, read and think, or do something like needlework that can let my mind wander away. Harris talks about the pressure to be doing something, and this reads true for me. Studies show that what happens to our brain when we daydream is a necessary piece to forming our identity. He talks about the rational mind versus the intuitive mind, and how even our work spaces have been changed to encourage collaboration and engagement rather than times of creative solitude.
The third section looks at identity and its relationship to solitude. Forming our own style means not conforming to the role society would have us take: what to wear, how to act, the proper way to talk, and many other "ways" that are expected of us. Even our technology pushes us in this direction. To have our technological tools work more efficiently, they like us to behave in predictable ways. The information that we are fed through our technology is based on previous choices we have made. Even the way we move is influenced by technology. It guides us to our destination, and we follow its instructions. We lose the serendipity of discovery that travel used to bring. Harris talks to researchers about mapping, our mental maps, and our wayfinding skills. This made me feel a lot better about the way I often ignore my car GPS's instructions if I see something interesting or don't like the way it is suggesting. The younger generation is particularly influenced by this tracking that is a given with today's technology. Someone has often been sharing moments of their lives broadly since birth, programming their time with educational opportunities, playdates, and sports, leaving them little time to be solitary. It also makes people more anxious when they don't know someone's whereabouts. We don't have permission to go off grid, to leave our phones and cameras behind and just live the experience. We don't have comfort with the experience of losing control of what may happen.
The fourth section is about how we allow others time for solitude, and how we communicate in our solitude. Harris investigates what happens to us when we read, and how reading, by allowing us to enter the experience of others unlike us, allows us to learn empathy. He looks at how even writing books has changed, with the advent of apps like Wattpad. He looks at the art of letter writing, and how it differs from the instant or near instant communication that we have come to accept as the norm. Harris looks at death and the growing demand for ways to prolong life, or at least appear to. He looks at digital memory-making, and the creation of avatars that outlive us, at the idea of the singularity. He tells us of his own experience with solitude as he took a week in a remote cottage, with no human contact and how he experienced that, including how he experienced coming back out of it.
This book was absolutely fascinating and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  1. This sounds amazing. A must read. Thanks for highlighting it, it sounds like just the thing to investigate right now as I've been pondering questions like this for a while.

    1. It definitely is a must read. I've also just finished The Lonely City by Olivia Laing which has some of the same topics, but with a different feel entirely, and I noticed the new cover of Adbusters is very plain with the words "God, I'm lonely" on it. So there's definitely a trend here.