I just finished reading Solitude by Michael Harris. I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen–including a stranger sitting beside me in a coffee shop!–that they should read this book. I think it’s that significant.
Here are five reasons good reasons to buy, and read, Solitude:
It’s such a great book, you’re going to want to refer back to it, discuss and share it with others. (And it’s very affordable, as it’s been recently released in paperback.)
Michael Harris is a skillful writer. In 2014 he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction for his book, The End of Absence. He has written for many publications, notably The Globe and Mail, Washington Post, Wired and Salon. The book is well researched, but easily read and understood.
There are many important ideas in this book, based on the thesis and subtitle A Singular Life in a Crowded World. Michael Harris is an original thinker, synthesizing data, expert opinion and history with his own experience and observations as a journalist and human living in the 21st century. Harris’ work reflects the complexity of modern life. In the Introduction to Solitude, Nicolas Carr (a Pulitzer Prize winning author) expertly summarizes some of the ideas Harris presents: Contemporary forces of technology, society, and commerce, beneficial forces in so many ways, conspire not only to diminish our opportunities for solitude but to seduce us into believing that solitude is at best inessential and at worst a waste of time.
The book challenges our contemporary society’s prevailing thoughts and norms. Harris argues that solitude is essential for creative thought. He provides evidence from current research into the brain, as well as observations of famous thinkers. He builds a very convincing case for the necessity of a wandering mind, which can only be accomplished through solitude. Einstein believed that the daydreaming mind’s ability to link things is, in fact, our only path toward fresh ideas. p. 52
He ends this chapter on a wry note, after spending three hours alone, wandering outdoors. An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it. And we are sorely out of practice. Do we even notice anymore that there are qualitative differences in the way we spend our free time? That an hour’s reverie in the park is not the same as an hour spent chasing Pokémon? p.60
This book is personally challenging. What is the longest period of solitude you’ve experienced? (Pure solitude=no internet, no emails or texting, no chatting to the barista, no one else) Michael Harris discovered ….most people arrived at the same number I had: twenty-four hours. At some point, due to flu or crippling depression, they had spent one full day without human connections. Younger friends had a harder time; most couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t cut off from all society for more than twelve hours. (And remember, they got eight free hours just for falling asleep.) p. 216
It’s seems a bit contradictory to be writing a public post about Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. Sigh. Harris makes valid, and original observations about the dangers of social media. But what better way to spread the news that this is a “must read” book? It may be more socially acceptable than talking to strangers in cafés.