From a review of two new books (A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti and A History of Solitude by David Vincent) in The Economist:
The history of solitude is thus partly a history of extremes—of people who have willingly sat on top of pillars for decades and of prison reformers who aim to use loneliness to break men’s souls. But it is also a history of the quest for balance.
The healthiest form of solitude is a flexible kind that combines it with sociability as necessary. Modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand, it has introduced what Mr Vincent calls “networked solitude”. Just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away. And the same technology that allows the solitary individual to engage remotely with society also allows society to engage remotely—and sometimes secretly—with the individual. Giant companies watch over you whether you are alone or in a crowd.
There is also something disturbing about the way the boundaries between solitude and sociability are blurring. Visit a gym and you see sweaty solipsists performing private workouts in public. On a train many of your fellow passengers will be insulated by headphones. Those ubiquitous devices are double-edged: they can fill your head with babble or, thanks to noise-cancelling, leave you in Trappist silence. As the two categories mingle, so the quest for balance becomes more intense. Popular modern fads offer a reacquaintance with the virtues of solitude: mindfulness provides access to peace and silence; some of the most popular pastimes in Silicon Valley, the source of so much noise and distraction, are hiking, yoga and meditation.
The lockdown has put the question of solitude at the heart of politics. Social distancing has been a tragedy for those living and, in some cases, dying alone. But for others it has proved a strange blessing. Overworked people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting. Many have picked up long-abandoned hobbies, such as tending the garden or playing bridge. Solitude is both one of mankind’s greatest blessings and greatest curses—and thanks to a virus that has been carried across the world by human sociability, more people than ever are getting the chance to experience both.
More: “Solitude Has Always Been Both a Blessing and a Curse” (paywall)
If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .
What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”
Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.
Full text: “Reading in the Dark“
From a lecture titled “Solitude and Leadership,” which William Deresiewicz delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009:
Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now — older people as well as younger people — you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.
Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.
— William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership,” The American Scholar, Spring 2010
Image: “Man Reading at Lamplight” by Georg Friedrich Kersting, 1814 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“[T]he internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking … There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focused thinking — which I don’t think is normal for human beings — whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.”
— “Information and Contemplative Thought: We Turn Ourselves into Media Creations,” Interview with Nicholas Carr, The European, January 31, 2012
“Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers … [T]he average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen … The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day … We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say … The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”
— Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011
“I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom — applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted.”
— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought” Read the rest of this entry