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Troubled Loners of the World Unite!

Sarah Maitland writes How to Be Alone as much for us not-so-troubled loners as she does for the chronically extroverted.

How to Be Alone

Publisher: Picador
Length: 240 pages
Author: Sarah Maitland
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2014-09

I don’t understand why solitary confinement would be a special punishment. Instead of finding my time with other people exhilarating, I find it exhausting. Going out to dinner and a movie on my own doesn’t feel sad to me. It feels cozy.

Indeed, I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I’ve known in my life that I’ve desired to spend a significant amount of my day with. I like to be alone.

Sarah Maitland seemingly wrote a book that I don’t need in the new release from Picador “School of Life” series entitled How to Be Alone. But maybe I do need it and so do you, even if you already share my lack of interest in human interaction. Maitland writes How to Be Alone as much for us not-so-troubled loners as she does for the chronically extroverted.

Its not, she makes clear in her deceptively simple prose, the desire to be alone that matters. Its what we do with our aloneness that makes it productive or destructive.

Maitland first has to deal with the widespread disapproval of the loner in western culture. She argues, and it’s an obvious but well-made point, that the people who prefer their own company have generally been regarded as “mad, bad and sad”.

The author’s ability to explore how we came to this pass illustrates her unerring ability to make short work of some very complex cultural ideas. She suggests, in a sweeping but very straightforward chapter, that solitude once had the patina of virtue rather than being suggestive of secret vice.

Hermits had been celebrated in the medieval world as spiritual athletes rather than worried over as possible serial killers. Moreover, the “lone hero” who struggled with monsters, nature and themselves has a respected pedigree (one that she notes still survives in American westerns and their various iterations).

Enlightenment writers, according to Maitland, “despised solitude, finding it both repellant and immoral.” The emphasis on the virtues of the public-minded citizen militated against what appeared to be the very medieval notions of the hermit and the solitary. She suggests the interesting idea that the significant social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, all requiring collective action on the part of women, minorities and trade unions, made the desire to be alone seem selfish and even reactionary.

The remainder of the book feels a bit more like a traditional self-help book but, as in the other entries in this Picador series, you won’t find the platitudes common to the genre. She achieves this in part by placing her suggestions within a larger conception of the nature of modern society.

“Negative attitudes toward solitude,” the author suggests, come from a failure to adequately employ our leisure time. Indeed, appearances to the contrary, we are “leisure-poor” and live our lives divided between work, maintenance of the things we have bought from our work and increasingly harried and high-pressure leisure activities that replicate certain aspects of work. A rediscovery of solitude offers a respite, a chance to catch our collective breath and perhaps reconsider our relationship to our frequently chaotic lives.

Maitland rather obviously connects her ideas about solitude to her personal faith. She uses, for example, numerous anecdotes from the lives of the saints to illustrate her points. These appear as historical anecdotes, however, and not as devotional material. Never does the author become the least bit preachy. Still, St. Anthony of the Desert is perhaps not the best poster boy for the sanity that solitude can provide, given his reputation for being haunted by demons he believed to be quite literal.

Moreover, Maitland does sometimes let drop the drippy sentiments common to religious writing, such as the insistence on the possibility of “extraordinary, mystical experiences in nature” and a description of solitude as a “precursor to intense religious experience, especially those we usually call mystical.” Prose like this feels sticky with meaning until you closely examine it and discover you aren’t quite sure what the author is actually claiming, suggesting or arguing in favor of.

I also wish that the author had sought to place solitude clearly in a political context. After all, isn’t solitude the fruit of privilege in many respects? Most of the working poor have little acquaintance with the significant amount of leisure time that this book assumes as normal for people in contemporary society.

As someone who enjoys a significant amount of solitude myself, I can’t begrudge the author her lovely sounding cottage on a lonely moor in Scotland. But I’m not sure what people who live in cramped public housing or a noisy apartment complex are to make of her prescription for the good life.

Still, Maitland makes quite a compelling case for solitude on its own terms. She convincingly shows it to be the nurse of creativity and an opportunity to learn about the world, including one’s own interior geography. Inveterate loners should not pass this one by even if the title causes them to think, “well, I already know how to do that.” Although we don’t need to be convinced that being alone is a good thing, we might want to learn some new steps we can dance with ourselves.

* * *

Above image: Silhouette in the passage image from Shutterstock.com.


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