Tag Archives: Michael Harris

Significant Book Alert (Part III)

Michael Harris has done it again – he’s written a significant book I wish everyone would read.  If you’re a (semi or) regular reader of The Art Caravan you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his writing. Here’s a post about his book Solitude and here’s a post about his first book,  The End of Absence.

Michael Harris, author

Michael Harris

Apparently I’m in good company recommending his newest work All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy.  The writers Susan Orlean and Barbara Gowdy agree with me.  In praising  the book, they both describe Michael Harris and his writing as humane.   John Vaillant, award winning author of The Golden Spruce says All We Want is … lovingly rendered.  My unfiltered, unpublished spontaneous response: What a damn fine writer!

All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy, Michael Harris, 2021

All We Want, Michael Harris, 2021

In all his books, Harris discusses challenging topics in a easily readable style.  Relevant history and facts are integrated with personal stories.  And don’t we all love a good story?

In All We Want he addresses the life-threatening effects of our consumer culture.

Life is not a story.  It’s many.
When, in the twentieth century, many of us narrowed things down to the single story of consumption we unwittingly narrowed our view of the natural world, too — the Earth became just one more thing to consume.  (p.150)

Michael Harris’ anecdotes take us from forest fires in British Columbia to the Vancouver landfill.  We visit a cabin somewhere (!) near Banff, Alberta – the remote home of a modern day maker of objects such as canoes, all hand made,  composed of natural materials.  We also spend time hiking with the author and his husband in the Rocky Mountains.  And finally, we experience the challenges of a parent’s decline and admittance to a complex care facility.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking….I know there’s a climate crisis.  Aarghh…I feel helpless.  I don’t want to read about it, too.  I understand.  But….it is beautifully written. It’s a work of art to savour.

More importantly, perhaps, this book gives me hope.  Harris answers the question How then should we live? with three different stories to replace the story of consumption.  It probably comes at no surprise to readers of The Art Caravan that the first of Harris’ alternative responses to consumer culture is craft. 

When we constantly disregard the material authenticity of things, when we live for digital facsimiles and obliging reproductions, we train ourselves to stop respecting the real costs, benefits, timelines and laws that govern the natural world.  And to do away with such cares is to become thoughtless about environmental impact.  Craft is a cure for such a heedless mindset.  It trains our eyes to marvel, and not just when we study wood and stone.  (p.96)

Can you guess the other two stories Harris offers as antidotes to consumer culture?  You may be surprised, or, you may think, as I did:  Of course.  That makes so much sense. Thanks for reminding and encouraging me.

I can’t lend you my copy, as I’ve decided I want to re-read it. ( It’s a keeper.)  No doubt you can find it  at your library or local independent bookshop.

Michael Harris, author

Michael Harris

When consumer culture offers something finished, Craft offers something coming into being; where consumer culture offers something you own, the Sublime offers something beyond your grasp; and where consumer culture offers satisfaction, Care offers sacrifice and devotion. (p.151)



Significant Book Alert (part II)

Last month I practically ordered you to read Michael Harris’ book, Solitude.  (Click here for the post.)  No! I am not checking up on your progress…but I don’t mind if this is a gentle reminder.

This month I will try to persuade you to read his first published book The End of Absence.  

The End of Absence by M. Harris

The End of Absence by M. Harris

Or, perhaps, I’ll let the author convince you.  Here are a few of his observations that, I think, make The End of Absence essential reading:

If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without.  You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.
Seen in a prudential light, our circumstances are also a tremendous gift.  If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After. (p. 15-16)

The strength of the book comes from his balanced, honest  approach.

    Technologies themselves, though, are amoral.  They aren’t good and evil, only dangerous and beloved.  They’ve been a danger we’ve been in love with for millennia, and rarely do we remember that, for example, the goal of human relations my extend beyond efficient transmissions.

Harris recounts the story of meeting his long-term partner on PlentyofFish.  It was more than a little unsettling to see that such a calculated and crowdsourced system had brought us together in the first place.  (p. 183)

The ideas in the book are based on thoughtful synthesis and research.  Harris doesn’t spare us from acknowledging the negative influence of the Internet.  Citing research from UCLA’s Digital Media Centre regarding TV shows for tween audiences, he writes how fame has become an overwhelming focus:
If a good life today, is a recorded life, then a great life is a famous one.
The post-Internet television content (typified by American Idol and Hannah Montanna) has swerved dramatically from family-oriented shows like Happy Days in previous decades. 
One recent survey of three thousand British parents confirmed this position when it found that the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star and actor.  Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.  (p. 69)

I like how he extends my thinking about  the possible long (and short) term effects of some Internet usage:
….Since 2009, Google has been anticipating the search results that you’d personally find most interesting and has been promoting those results each time you search, exposing you to a narrower and narrower vision of the universe.  In 2013, Google announced that Google Maps would do the same, making it easier to find things Google thinks you’d like and harder to find things you haven’t encountered before.  Facebook follows suit, presenting a curated view of your “friends'” activities in your feed.  Eventually, the information you’re dealing with absolutely feels more personalized; it confirms your beliefs, your biases, your experiences.  And it does this to the detriment of your personal evolution.  Personalization–the glorification of your own taste, your own opinion–can be deadly to real learning.  (p. 91)

He makes a strong case for the importance of absence in our lives, lives now increasingly connected to others, thanks to technology.    …real thinking requires retreat.  True contemplation is always a two-part act:  We go out into the world for time, see what they’ve got, and then we find some isolated chamber where all that experience can be digested.  You can never think about the crowd from its centre.  You have to judge it from a place of absence.  (p. 133)

The book is not all doom and gloom.  It is a measured response to the reality of our present (and ever-changing) world, and the impact of technology.
We must remain critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it.  And we must make these decisions not because we disike the things we could connect to, but precisely because they’re so crucial to our survival.
Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life.  That is its job.  Your job is to notice.  First, notice the difference.  And then, every time, choose.

I’m not the only person who liked this book.  It won a (Canadian) Governor General’s Literary Award in 2014.  Coincidentally, Michael Harris discusses the Governor General’s Award experience in an opinion piece published today in the Globe and Mail.  Click here to read the article for a sampling of Michael Harris.




“Significant Book” ALERT!

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.

Solitude by Michael Harris

Solitude by Michael Harris

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.