Tag Archives: Canadian Nonfiction

On the Quest for a bit of Alone Time. | Review of Michael Harris’ “Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World” (2017) Doubleday Canada

soli

Since starting my little reading blog here, I have noted that many of my followers crave some quiet down time to read and even think a bit. Yet getting that down time to put their feet up is limited. Well dear followers, here is one more book I have read for you and note for your consideration while you go through your hurly-burly day. And that book is:  Michael Harris’ Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World.

Pages 17-18

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And when we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca-scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety – in particular, those who have a high need for social assurance. The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging. And with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social.

And yet . . . In the same way that many people are forced to engineer healthy diets for themselves in a world overflowing with the salts and sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, it’s possible that we’re such compulsive social groomers that we must keep ourselves from gobbling the fast-food equivalent. Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?

Has the neocortex – the very thing that made us human, the thing that kickstarted our cities and our politics, our religions and our art – been hijacked one to many times?

I have been reluctant to use the term Zeitgeist for a while but Harris has indeed documented what many of us feel is the “spirit of the times” with this non-fiction book.  Our modern lifestyle demands we be tuned-in to a multitude of devices and online platforms, and if we miss one tweet or post, we will be the social pariah at the conversation around the water cooler or dinner party. So what would happen if we were to totally tune out not only our toys but all of our friends and just be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Many of us have been tempted to do so but Harris gives the notion some serious and well-researched thought.

Pages 53-54

Physicists like Einstein and Newton are among our most fundamental thinkers, and they were particularly aware of what solitude brings to serious thought. Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, criticizes the new generation of advanced study institutes for emphasizing collaboration and social atmospheres at the expenses of such solitary contemplation. The institutions Mellor studies exhibit what she calls a “near exclusive focus” on communication between scholars and, in their own words, call for “international engagement” and “collaborative research projects.” The Francis Crick Institute, in London, which opened in 2016, is a paradigmatic example: it’s designed with open-plan labs and glass walls to ensure collaboration. The institute’s strategy documents cheers how “how scientists will be drawn together at interaction and collaboration facilities located at the centre of each floor.”

“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude,” Mellor writes, “are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances.” Although every fundamental shift in physics has required a good dose of solitude, “reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda.” Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning godfather of the Hadron Collider, backs Mellor up, saying his trailblazing work would be impossible today because the peace and solitude he enjoyed in the 1960s has vanished. We can only imagine how premature sharing could deflate a unified field theory or mangle an explanation for the origination of gamma rays bursts.

What is true for institutions is also true for individuals. We all have daily proof that moments of aloneness allow for the drifting, unfocused mind to be inspired. Like others, I`m hit by my better ideas firs thing in the morning, even lying in bed, before the world has poured any noise or hassle onto me. A novel thought might strike me in the shower, or while I’m drinking my coffee and fuzzily apprehending the patterns of birds outside. Almost all my writer friends swear by early-morning writing. And the psychiatrist Anthony Storr found the same, sayin that “by far the greater number of new ideas occur during a state of reverie, intermediate between waking and sleeping.” It’s as though the brain is allowed to have its genius moment before our lumbering, bureaucratic ide of thinking puts on a tie and gets in the way.

This is a unique read. It is one I would recommend that a person buys a print-edition of it,  sits down and ponders over it. Harris certainly took time out to research and reflect on the subject on how our interconnectedness is influencing our minds. He not only talked with a myriad of experts on the subject, but brings a wealth of knowledge to the discussion. And then in the final chapter, he documents his attempt at what many of us desire –  some solitude and alone-time.

Pages 215-216 The Cabin in the Woods

By the time I finish this tuna sandwich, I’ll have been alone – completely alone – for longer than I’ve ever been before.

It’s a startling thought. But, sitting here on this rotting deck, and looking out over both the ocean and the last thirty-six years, I find it’s true. Weirdly true. I have never, in my life, been completely alone for longer than twenty-four hours. Always, there was some quiet interaction with the guy making my Americano, at least. Or, if I was stuck in my apartment with the flu, there’d be an email exchange while curled in the nest of my duvet. But there was always some connection, some comfort.

From infancy onward, I have been perpetually witnessed, judged, hugged, chatted-up . . . .

But that changes now.  I’ve taken the ferry from Vancouver to Pender Island, about two hours off the coast of British Columbia. From the docks, I hiked another two hours to my family’s cabin. An old A-frame, built by my grandparents in the days when a parcel of land on an island’s waterfront wasn’t so impossible a thing to purchase. There’s a rope swing from when I was five; it dangles noose-like from one of the trees. A set of rotten steps leads me, muddy and skidding, down to the pebble beach where my brothers and I used to build rafts out of driftwood. We tied logs together with ropes of bull kelp.

The cabin door shunts open and there’s the smell of cedar planks, wet dog, ashes. I tug provisions from my pack: one week’s worth of oatmeal, raisins, tuna fish, canned chili. A paper bag of apples, one for each day.

I’ve come here for a week with myself. I plan not just doubling or tripling my solitude record but stretching it to point where I’m talking to myself.

Michael Harris has both brilliantly documented and done what we all have desperately crave with his book Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. This is truly a work that must reflected and pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Link to Michael Harris` website

Exploring the Elements of the Canadian Roads in a Literary Fashion | Review of “Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road” (2009) Key Porter Books

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Words put together in a carefully crafted manner have more than a lyrical feel to them. There is something mystical the way a phrase speaks to a reader who is in a quiet corner discovering a new truth about an element of the universe. The spark it creates in the mind of a lonely individual is divine, which may cause a reader to take an action of some sort. Lately I have been finding this quality of writing in fiction but I was excited to find a work of non-fiction that excites me. Peter Unwin’s book Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road, has me considering take a road trip of mine own, even if it is to find another one of his books.

Pages 11-12 Introduction

Since it first wound its way through the Canadian landscape, the road has been represented as a symbol of hope, leading all those who travel on it into a brighter future and a better life. The comforting language of unity and nation building is never far off and at times a spiritual dimension creeps in. Canadian road – “Highways of Hope,” “Pavements of Prosperity,” or “Dream Roads,” as they have been called – are routinely associated with growth, nationhood, and the betterment of the individual. It is assumed almost without question that the road will provide us with an escape route from poverty, from the past, and from the class consciousness of old Europe in particular.  It will also guarantee national unity, protect us from the enemy, and provide us with a lot of fabulous scenery along the way.

This is a lot to ask of the road, which, in its most basic aspect, remains what it always was: a way of getting somewhere, a long, narrow, diffuse piece of technology, a machine really, a democratizing machine perhaps, and one that facilitates movement by itself remaining still. But the road is very much a body of beliefs, a secular religion that worships freedom and individuality. It pays tribute to the primary human urge to be in motion and allows us to create a story about ourselves, even requires that we do so: the story of who we are, a summation of all the roads we have travelled, of the turnoffs we’ve missed, of all the songs we have ever sung, and an inventory of all the people we have travelled with – in short of our lives.

The inclination of the road is inclusive, leading away from the exclusionary etiquettes of the railway or the brittleness of Old World class divisions. Unlike the rail, the road requires no blind obedience to a rigid schedule set by someone else or the purchase of a ticket from a man in a serge suit who’s a slave to his timepiece. We don’t stand in line to take it. Like an idea or a sudden passion, the road can be embraced on a whim. A man, a woman, their children, and the pet parrot can pile into the wagon or the car, tie the conjugal mattress to the roof, and at any moment undertake a new life. From Newfoundland to Newfoundout, from Fort McMurray to Hope, British Columbia, the road leads somewhere else – somewhere better.

I gave up a full-time career in media because writing in a expressive and emotional style wasn’t “profitable” for a lot of publishers anymore. But Unwin has captured that desire in me to “scribble” at least here again with this book. The prose is certainly poignant and  – at times – witty. But there is always a no-holds-barred look at the reality of the history and roads in Canada which is not only unique and truthful.

Pages 50-51 Breaking the Trail: “Adequate for Horsemen, but Unsuitable for Women”

The first road to be built in maritime Canada were crude trails hacked from the dense bush for the simple and even exemplary purpose of delivering mail. This means that some of the first cargo of the Canadian road included, along with the expected cannon and gunpowder, billet-doux, letters home, missives written in the face of loneliness. The mailman appears as one of the first travellers on the road, pushing his lonely way through the deer paths, the tote roads, and finally the road itself, specifically built to accommodate him. In the seventeenth century, one Nova Scotia mailman covered a seventy-two-mile (115 kilometre) route for three months without meeting another human being.

While this raises the question of who exactly the mail was being delivered to, the original Canadian road is here presented in its first and long-lasting spiritual aspect” a conduit for verse, for the gossip that makes communication worthwhile in the first place, and for dark letters that announce the death of a loved one. The story also reveals the original Canadian mailman as a mute pioneer troubadour lugging a canvas bag through an almost primordial forest, whistling to remind himself that he’s there and to warn the bears of his presence. Joseph Howe describes an old postie named Stewart who worked the route from Pictou to Halifax and carried the mail in his jacket pocket, along with a gun to shoot any partridge that he might encounter. The partridge he sold to his customers as he went along.

Unwin has used a combination of wit and seriousness with his prose here to make readers ponder about something we take for granted – that path that is under our feet or under our tires. This is one of those books that should be taken to a quiet corner and meditated over. The ‘ah-hah’ and ‘really’ and ‘how-true’ moments that come from Unwin’s observations are numerous.

Page 143 – Virgin Territory

I unload a barrage of  questions, and he at once drops the tourist board gimcrack and comes clean. “Nobody comes here,” he says softly. “You`re the first.” The young people are getting out of here as fast as they can. “Calgary,” he says. An almost mystical light shines in his face. Calgary.

Next door stands the prominently mounted street sign that announces Yonge Street. In front of it is the official blue information sign, pleased to explain that Rainy River is connected by this road to the humming frenzy of Toronto, 1,915 kilometres away. This, then, is Main Street: main street Rainy River, main street Toronto – what Sinclair Lewis, in his novel of the same name, sneeringly calls “the climax of civilization.” Smart-alecky, quick-talking VJs are forever zipping up here to film this sign for television programs that will be called “Road Trip” or “On the Road.” And yet Toronto exerts no pull here. In this hidden corner of Ontario, sometimes called the Northwest Angle, the tug is tangibly westward. The roads lead there, the rivers lead there, the culture leads there, the fur trappers went there before us, breaking the routes that the highways would follow. The young people are going there too. They follow the road. West

Peter Unwin has given a well-crafted voice to the unsung elements of the road in Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road. It is an enlightening and entertaining read and definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Peter Unwin`s LinkedIn Profile