Thursday 29 June 2017

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

As someone who understands and knows solitude pretty extensively I was instantly attracted to this title.

Feeling that my solitude and busy times are currently out of whack also made this seem like the right book at the right time.

But I'm not sure that Solitude by Michael Harris is really about solitude.

It was more of an exploration of our modern, connected, tech-obsessed society. He discusses what that looks like, how it happened and it's impact on our daily lives and on our long-term health. Harris wonders if social media has made us 'socially obese', like teenagers who need to be needed and loved. And he talks about the addictive nature of 'sharing'.

The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging.

Harris started off with the first line from an Emily Dickinson poem. I was curious enough to find the whole.

Part Five: The Single Hound


THERE is another Loneliness
That many die without,
Not want or friend occasions it,
Or circumstances or lot.

But nature sometimes, sometimes thought,
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be divulged
By mortal numeral.

Emily Dickinson

As someone who has an abundance of the nature and the thoughts that Dickinson referred to, this poem gave me great hopes for finding within the pages of this book, the richer stuff of 'true solitude' (as opposed to the 'failed solitude' of loneliness).

It was not to be, but Solitude did plant the seed I needed to rediscover it for myself.

There must be an art to it....A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases.

But, of course, as we all probably know anyway, these things have to be worked out for yourself, in your own way, usually from hard-won experience, determination and hard work.

Daydreaming our days away is a thing of the past.

Our phones and other devices suck up all of our spare time, our leisure time and much of our working time as well.

However good old fashioned daydreaming had it's purpose. Being on our own, with unfettered time and nothing to do, forced us into self-governance. It gave us those eureka moments and acted as a form of self-therapy.

The truth is that most of our daydreams are not particularly noble or important or fruitful (phew! perhaps I'm doing it properly after all!) An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it.

Solitude also allowed us to be free and independent thinkers - more sure of our thoughts and less likely to be swayed by popular opinion.

The choices we now make online 'become less independent and more manipulated'. We begin to believe that the technology knows us better than we know ourselves. Our world becomes confined to what our known data thinks we would like to have more of. We stop being exposed to new, different and unusual things. We stop thinking for ourselves. We accept the decisions that come at us 'through our screens and accept them as our own'. Until, without realising it,

you become trapped inside an algorithmically defined notion of your own wont be exposed to things you don't know, things you haven't loved yet. Personal growth becomes stunted.

Thanks to our technology we now never get lost. There is no longer any wandering around trying to find our way and stumbling on something unexpected. Google maps are causing our 'wayfinding skills to atrophy.' We have stopped paying attention to the details of the world around us as we let our phones guide us to our destination. It is no longer the journey, and the stuff we learn and see and experience along the way, that is important. It's the getting there.

Harris then moved onto the art of reading and writing and how these technologies changed our world. 'Each technology drops its own lens over your eyes' - the printing age and the era of screens have both affected the way we tell stories. We believe in,

the fragile idea that your life is a cohesive story....the idea that you are a hero of some story...(however)...Real life feels more like a Tumblr feed than a novel. Real life is random, overpowering, and scarcely knowable as it scrolls past our bewildered, blinking eyes.

This tied in with memory and how technology has changed our ability to remember. Our memories change every time we remember them. They're reassessed to reflect our subsequent knowledge and experiences. So how does this process change when all our memories are documented on social media? And not left to the vagaries of time and revisionism?

So what did I get out of Solitude?

I realised that part of my blogging blues stems from an over-active, over-stimulated mind. I need to find calm, peace and joy. I need to slow down. I need to spend more time in nature and less time on my devices.

I might try the Japanese idea of forest bathing.

Ultimately, it's our choice to nurture our solitude or to allow it to be depleted.

I choose to calm down, slow down and find my centre again.


  1. I find the slower I go (retirement) the more I want to do! Terry Prachett said something that really stayed with me: "So much little time."
    Nature....I just look out my garden doors, care for my plants and as Clive Jones said in his poem Sentenced to Life: "No birds touch down in the trees without me seeing them. I count bees." True lesson in slowing down... :)

    1. There's regular life busy and there's technology 'busy'.
      I seem to have allowed technology to creep into my 'slow' time.

      It's the technology sucking of time that I'm trying to limit :-)

  2. Your blogpost has sparked me to slow down...
    I'm reading only books I want to read and it feels
    like a libertation. The 'classic book lists' were sucking the life out of me!
    Rant blogpost will be available tomorrow ....I'm going to bed now!

    1. Well done!!!
      Life's way too short to read a book you don't care about, or enjoy reading. Too many good ones to dive into instead :-)

      Look forward to the rant. We all need one every now and again!

  3. Great review, Brona. I don't think I will read it now.

    1. It was an interesting book, but more about the loss of solitude rather than the art of solitude.


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