Reading notes: The End of Solitude
Read William Deresiewicz if you care about English prose, argument, higher education, politics vis-a-vis education, or anything else he happens to be writing about.
- These really are essays. They cohere; they have arguments. It's a joy to read someone who is, fundamentally, not a take-generation machine or some other sort of content monster. I'd group him with Byrne Hobart or Ian Mueller, whom Stephen Menn described as a "sporadic" in the Diogenes Laertius sense. Deresiewicz has his commitments and beliefs, but fundamentally he is an extremely active reader and intellect who synthesizes his intellectual life for the rest of us. Reading folks like this is one of the great intellectual joys in my life. It's heartening that there are (I think) more and more of them around these days.
- The essays I'd read before (in most cases, roughly 10 years ago) feel very different here in 2022. Most obviously, COVID has given new urgency and relevance to questions of what solitude is, how to do it properly, and whether we can have too much of it. So many people have found themselves surprised by what it's like to be alone, physically or otherwise. The End of Solitude is, so far, the most important COVID book (both "book that came out during COVID" and "book about COVID-related subjects") I've read, for having the most to say about these issues. (In case you're curious, #2 on that list is The Last Days of Roger Federer.)
- Deresiewicz writes from anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal commitments. I'd say that mainstream leftist politics (even those strains that get branded as "extremist") have moved pretty far away from Deresiewicz's views in the last decade--however much they use "capitalist" and "neoliberal" as slurs. Sustained critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism that don't rest on identity politics or certain other prominent political stances are less common than they used to be, and this is the best in recent memory. (Deresiewicz does, however, have some things to say about identity politics itself: across various essays, he critiques it as the consolidation and exercise of a certain strain of elite power. Like it or not, he has a lot of argument and evidence behind the view.)
- I am in the position of, on the one hand, seeing Deresiewicz as a breath of fresh air and, on the other, reading page after page about how so many of my values, goals, and ideals are delusional and/or evil. If you are similarly situation but prefer not to read many dozens of pages about how misguided you are, may I recommend A Jane Austen Education? What I actually recommend is reading it anyway, but one can't be scolded into a deep engagement with the best arguments against one's life structure and value system. That requires ethical development and the liberal arts--which brings us back to The End of Solitude.
- There's a lot more than the headline topics in the book. Two unexpected joys were "Hunting the Whale," about the novel and recent books about the novel, and "A Jew in the Northwest," about being a Jew in the Pacific Northwest (including notes on Malamud and Leslie Fielder).
- One metric I use to reflect on my reading is how much of my mental life a book takes up when I'm in the middle of a book but not at the moment reading it. The End of Solitude scores very high here.
- As I write this, it's my second-favorite book of the year. I imagine Deresiewicz wincing at my tendency to rank what I read, but I'll stand by the habit.
Finally, a few striking passages:
Youth, now, is nothing more than a preliminary form of adulthood, and the quiet desperation of middle age has been imported backward into adolescence.
Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators tend to be so ready to accede to their demands).
To put it another way, Portland does not seem to have any grown-ups. Sure, there are people in their forties and fifties and seventies, but there isn’t anyone who represents the past, and the weight of the past, like my old-timers and Italian grandmothers. There isn’t anything that represents the past.
Elite mass culture hardly even anymore pretends to be interested in art—in art, that is, as opposed to entertainment, high art as opposed to kitsch. Art is too hard, too subtle, too complex, too time-consuming, altogether too recalcitrant. The professional would rather watch Netflix; the “cultural critic” would rather pontificate about the TikTok trend. Rosenberg didn’t think that kitsch was even worth bothering to attack. Now it rules the world.
Highly, highly recommended.