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Four Takes: Why solitude is not a bad thing, The Boston Sunday Globe


Consider Montaigne. We have been told, often, that the one-time mayor of Bordeaux was our first great essayist; our first real inquirer into his own mind; our first great first person. He is credited with so much he might as well have invented freeways, frozen dinners, and all the other markers of the solitary Western self.

Except that he was lazy: “sluggish, lax and drowsy” in youth, which actually made him, in Patricia Hampl’s view, our first modern daydreamer. For those considering this week’s theme, the value of idling alone, Hampl’s latest book, “The Art of the Wasted Day,”could not be better timed. It opens on a day in July, with Hampl lying under a beech tree in Minnesota. She is still a child but one who already intuits that what she wants for herself is a life of the mind.

First though, she had to become the promising student and well-organized woman who would produce a series of highly regarded nonfiction works. “The Art of the Wasted Day” is part backward look, part guide for those who wish to slow down, or who fear they might have missed some essential point about being alive.

For Hampl, leisure is inseparable from the kind of interior life she always longed for. Yet, as she wryly concedes, her worker-bee proclivities often stood in the way, as did her Midwestern itch to be elsewhere. Her search for worthy role models inevitably leads to Montaigne, but Hampl finds plenty of others to discuss along the way. Among them are Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Around 1778, braving the objections of their families, they repaired to a Welsh cottage to live exactly as they pleased, “in delicious seclusion.” From what Hampl was able to tell, it worked out gloriously.

“The Art of the Wasted Day” gains most of its force from her tender but restrained asides to her late husband. Her pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower, in France, ought to have been a culmination. Instead, Hampl finds far greater meaning in an ordinary boat trip she and her husband once took on the upper Mississippi.

Despite the loss of her spouse, Hampl remains an eloquent apologist for solitude. It is not just important to the creative life, she proposes, but a cornerstone of spiritual well-being. Its prime function, and prize, is a closer experience of reality.

Stephanie Rosenbloom would say amen. In “Alone Time – Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude,” The New York Times columnist champions the virtues of solo travel. Some readers will take her advice; others will be content to follow her on the page.

She begins with that safest of all bets, Paris. A boulangerie may lie around every corner, but so evidently does a study. Intent on closing the case, Rosenbloom repeatedly interrupts her reports with the latest scholarship. Did you know that visiting a museum alone is as pleasurable as going with someone? Walking boosts creative thinking? Anticipation heightens actual experience? Or that others view solo diners no differently than people seated with company?

Still not convinced? Buy a plane ticket, and let Paris speak for itself. Better yet, let Istanbul, where Rosenbloom overcomes her resistance and samples a Turkish bath. (Research supports the happiness value of new experiences.)

The trouble with being alone, of course, is that it can sour into sadness. In “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” a love-struck Olivia Laing ditches her life in England to move to New York. Soon after arriving, she herself is ditched.

Laing copes by looking at art. Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol become the subjects of insightful portraits. So do Henry Darger, the outsider artist who worked for years as a Chicago janitor, and Klaus Nomi, a counter-tenor who “made an art of being alien.”

Laing’s inquiry leads her from art to psychology to technology, and recent reservations about the Internet’s capacity to counter human isolation. (She too cannot resist the literature: Current studies, she notes, suggest that more than a quarter of Americans suffer from loneliness.) Her conclusion that loneliness has become collective, and a political challenge as much as a personal one, is a call to arms.

For those who can take aloneness but not too much leisure, it may be time to begin preparing. Martin Ford’s thoughtful if chilling new book, “Rise of the Robots — Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” tells us just how much free time may loom. Having recently dispatched much unskilled labor, machines are now coming for the skilled. And unlike in past technological revolutions, Ford cautions, more education and training may not be the answer. The questions he raises beg for creative thinking — the kind best done in a hammock, as studies surely must show.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.

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