A solitary reading list

I mentioned I’d ordered a raft of books recently. All but one were on the subject of solitude.

May Sarton’s journals were one take on it. I also read Doris Grumbach’s Fifty Days of Solitude, a slim book describing her experience of sequestering herself away in order to write. I thought this was cheating because she went back to her usual social life after so it was more of a holiday.

I was beginning to wonder if the only legitimate reason for being alone was in order to write but of course, I was reading about it so naturally the people doing the writing about it were writers. Duh.

Next up was Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. This has some very interesting facts and figures about the rise of the one person household, but I kept feeling he was about to go down the route of ‘we are social creatures’ and living alone was the Wrong Way. I think he doesn’t really ‘get’ it, an individual needing or desiring that kind of solitude, but he didn’t find any research to say it was bad or dangerous so it must be okay.

Florence Falk wrote On My Own, aimed at women on their own. This arrived boasting a very chick-lit cover, which almost put me off, but the book was better than it looked. It veered  towards ‘woman living alone post divorce’, perhaps not surprising, and ran a little apologetic and defensive in tone in parts. Also, every woman in the book came with a physical description (“Amy, a petite redhead with glasses …” etc) which annoyed the crap out of me because the men weren’t described like that (“Derek, an accountant from a small town in Oklahoma …”) and also, how they looked had nothing to do with the point she was making except in one instance.

Come to think of it, Klinenberg did this too. It’s sexist and irritating.

So, next was the much cited Anthony Storr and Solitude. This is quite an old book now but it’s worth the read. For a start, he’s one of the few who doesn’t treat a desire for solitude as a pathology, and even suggests that the pathology lies more with adults who are unable to be alone. Amen to that, Mr Storr.

I’m nearing the end of Lonely by Emily White. I was nervous about this one because from the subtitle (Learning to live with solitude) I feared she might conflate loneliness with alone-ness, but she doesn’t. I still think ‘solitude’ is the wrong word in this instance because it’s not solitude she learns to live with, it’s loneliness. That aside, it’s an excellent book and well worth reading to understand loneliness in greater depth. A tweet-length summary: loneliness is a sense of not being connected to people and it’s not the same as having no friends or being alone.

The book starts with the UCLA Loneliness Scale Quiz. I had a problem with question 6,”how often do you feel completely alone?” to which one can answer from Never to Always (Always being the high & lonely score.) But ‘Always’ is only a problem if being alone all the time is an undesirable state. That seems a common mistake in the literature, assuming a state is a bad thing when it’s more about how a person feels about it.

I began this reading marathon with Lionel Fisher’s Celebrating Time Alone, a compilation of stories from people in all walks of life and situations who have chosen solitude. It was a good place to start, because unlike so many books on living alone, Fisher focuses on those who have chosen to live alone rather than those who have had life alone thrust upon them and are gamely taking on the challenge. It’s refreshing in this genre to hear from people for whom solitude is a positive choice, and not just the dramatic solitude choice like running off to Patagonia to live on an uninhabited island for a year etc (that is next up – Robert Kull’s Solitude).

One other book I love that I read a couple of times is Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. She builds a cottage in a remote area of the UK and explores her life in silence. It’s unusual in that she is clearly capable of being very social and outgoing, but chooses to explore silence (in part a religious exploration) and again, because it’s a very active choice, the tone of the book is neither apologetic nor defensive. A good read.

I’ve mentioned Party of One by Anneli Rufus before. Her tone is a bit more defensive and even borders aggressive at times. It was she who first drew my attention to the use of the word ‘loner’ in the media as a stereotypical categorisation of any nut-job, regardless of whether they are in fact alone or not. She quite rightly points out that there is a world of difference between someone who chooses to be alone (a true loner) and someone who is rejected and an outcast – they’re the ones to watch out for. Interesting in light of Emily White’s book though: you’d think people suffering from loneliness might be more likely to become nut-jobs. She doesn’t address this, but it did make me think, based on Rufus’ discussion of the topic, that anger at being rejected by society is the key distinction. Most lonely people aren’t angry at society. Incidentally, Rufus is married. To me, that’s not alone, but as I said a post or two ago, solitude is a spectrum.

I still have a couple more books to read. It’s proving to be an interesting journey, and the fact the books are written at all suggests a lot of people are trying to come to terms with what it means to go it alone in daily life.

PS All the links go to Book Depository. I’m feeling very anti-Amazon after hearing about how they run their business and treat their staff. I don’t get any benefit from linking to Book Depository, I just like them and I bought all these books from them.

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