Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World
By Michael Harris. Doubleday Canada, 272 pp, hardcover
Since the advent of the Internet, being truly alone has, according to Governor General’s Award–winning author Michael Harris, become nearly impossible.
Rather than lamenting the slow death of solitude, however, Harris takes a proactive approach to navigating a world filled with distractions and notifications. Framing his quest to explore “a singular life in a crowded world” by examining his reticence to sit down and write his book—a practice that he acknowledges as being one of the most isolating activities one can pursue—Harris makes a compelling case for how true aloneness is both a form of expertise and a reward.
The author’s personal anecdotes blend with research from cognitive scientists, examinations of culture from past centuries, big-data analytics, and a lengthy discussion of Google Maps. Arguing that individual voices are homogenized by the herd, Harris picks apart the deflation of language into its basest form, and shows how crowd mentalities eliminate true expressions of difference. Fittingly using the first person throughout, Harris creates an erudite discussion of how it is possible to reclaim moments of individuality by identifying the regions where solitude still thrives.
By shunning the constant demands on one’s attention, the author argues, it’s possible to achieve a Zen-like state: a condition that “allows us to reflect and recharge, improving our relationship with ourselves and, unexpectedly, with others”. Despite its grand claims, however, Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World deftly refuses to stray into the self-help genre, with Harris instead directing his highly readable prose at exploring how modern psychology and technology can be uncoupled.
For Harris, the goal of solitude is to break from the addiction to digital connections—the so-called ludic loops of scrolling through apps like Facebook or Instagram—to permit oneself to stumble upon uncharted terrain. Encouraging readers to “switch off” and give in to the meandering thoughts of daydreaming, Harris’s celebration of nonproductivity is revolutionary in contemporary culture. Going beyond the clichéd adage that the more connected the population becomes, the weaker its interactions, the author successfully details his personal journey into a world where it is possible to get lost, and to briefly lose oneself.
Michael Harris reads from Solitude at a Vancouver Writers Fest Incite event on Wednesday (April 12) at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library.