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Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

by Michael Harris

There seems to be no end to the impact of the digital revolution on our lives or its ongoing transformation of the way we work, relax, socialize, express ourselves, and even think. Naturally, this has been exercising critics and commentators a great deal, and there have already been a host of books on the subject. One of them, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, won a 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award. With Solitude, Harris is back, and covering a lot of the same ground. Charitably, the book might be called a sequel. Less charitably, it might appear as if the author is repeating himself.

indexEven the form of presentation is familiar: personal anecdotes alternating with items drawn from Harris’s eclectic reading and interviews he’s done with various experts in the fields of business and psychology. The basic point he draws is also nothing new: modern life, and in particular our always connected technology, is alienating us from ourselves. We need to recharge and reconnect with absence and/or solitude in order to regain a sense of personal authenticity.

If this sounds like the sort of truism typical of a lot of pop spirituality (think of the mindfulness movement, for example), that may give some clue to the source of Harris’s charm. In his hands, banal observations take on an air of profundity (or occasionally fail, as when we are told that “not till we are lost can we hope to be found”). But he is always an engaging writer, easy to read and capable of expressing his arguments in memorable and helpful ways. His main thesis – that solitude is a beneficial resource that has to be responsibly managed and saved from being exploited by profiteering tech companies and other agents of distraction – is particularly well developed. The environmental analogy works nicely, presenting us with the dangerous possibility of a clear-cut “Easter Island of the mind” and stressing the need to undertake the preservation of individual solitude so as to “safeguard our inner weirdo.”

The comparison of solitude to a threatened natural environment is extended in various ways, culminating in Harris’s visit to an off-the-network island retreat. Such a retreat, however, can also be seen as symbolic of a withdrawal into an intellectual comfort zone. Harris is not big on raising counterpoints – for example, asking whether the protective weaving of “stronger weirdo cocoons” might be seen as narcissistic. He also allows his argument to spread a bit thin at times. The chapter on the “final and inviolate solitude” of death seems particularly out of place and doesn’t connect all that well with the rest of the book.

There is, however, a strong takeaway. Solitude has real benefits, leading as it does to enhanced creativity, a better understanding of the self, and (paradoxically) the ability to connect more fully with others. It is a psychological and emotional resource that is increasingly under assault. We have to be aware of this, and look for ways to defend the endangered singular life.