how to be alone

Some years ago I read Sara Maitland’s book A Book of Silence. It’s a beautiful book based on Maitland’s own experiences of living alone in the Scottish highland. Now she is out with a new book, in a way it’s a continuation of the first, but How to Be Alone is also an attempt to better distinguish between the two concepts of silence and solitude. “I am writing this book because I would like to allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude.”

The first chapter is called “Sad, Mad and Bad”, it asks:

How have we arrived … at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

Why is our culture so afraid of solitude? Are people preferring to live alone a threat to society? Must they be sad, mad and/or bad to choose an alternative way of living? (You all know my longing for Antarctica, so obviously I feel it’s my own sanity which is under scrutiny here).

Maitland asks:

  • could some people’s peaceful happy solitude function as an antidote, or even a balance, to the frenetic social activity of others?
  • what, exactly, is our social responsibility in a society where most people feel powerless?
  • why does other people’s claim to be happy in a different way from oneself provoke so much anxiety?
  • why – and how – have we come stigmatize people who prefer to be alone?


Greta Garbo chose to retire at the age of 35 to ‘live another life’

13 Comments Add yours

  1. I have ordered Maitland’s A Book of Silence. Amazing that this AM I was writing in my journal about the solitude that is important to me since childhood and necessary for me in order to create my artwork. Look forward to Maitland’s next book. Thanks.

    1. Sigrun says:

      oh – great, looking forward to hear your thoughts. I think it is important to have good voices advocating for the sanity of solitude, it is in a way a parallel to Susan Cain’s “Quiet-project”. I guess quite few of us actually find contemporary culture rather too noisy, to full of loud nonsense – . Maybe we are witnessing the start of a counterculture?

  2. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Have you heard Glenn Gould’s contrapuntal radio trilogy on this topic? It is varied across its sections, and takes up your theme very well. It’s also around fifty years old. A few links here:
    A tiny piece of it is archived here:

    1. Sigrun says:

      what a gift! thank you!!!

  3. Jeff says:

    Maybe the main difficulty with solitude today is that (even though it is an individual’s choice, and choice is meant to be real and important in a consumerist society) it is counter-cultural when a culture’s main measure of itsefl is its ability to increase the measurable growth in its economy? Solitude means not getting with what is important to buy. Social media plug into and accentuate the prevailing mindset and practices. Hence to act against this logic is a tricky thing to understand. Is she a communist?

    1. Sigrun says:

      As mentioned to Helen above, I think it would be interesting to look upon choosing solitude as a kind of countercultural act. A response to a very noisy capitalist society that keeps on jabbering 24/7.

      This is what Maitland says about herself: I was born in 1950, the second of six children and grew up in London and South West Scotland. I went to Oxford University in 1968; I studied English and (more importantly) discovered feminism, socialism, Christianity and friendship, which have proved the bedrock of my adult life.

  4. I bought her first book for a friend but haven’t read it and also her book about forests, she certainly has an appealing range of subjects, which I must read myself!

    1. Sigrun says:

      She also has a very unusual experience in living by herself for such a long time, which also is very interesting to learn about.

  5. c m wilson says:

    I’ve also just ordered two of her books – they should arrive soon! Thanks for hitting the nail on the head, as usual. 🙂

  6. Terrific Garbo photo!!
    I look forward to your evolving thoughts on solitude.

  7. KM Huber says:

    Almost missed this post and so glad I did not. Only in my later years–now–am I enjoying such a life alone. That I did not insist earlier is of my own choosing and doing but just this morning it occurred to me how wonderful these later years are, right down to creating memories. Thank you for the Maitland book titles as well. Oh, and the Garbo picture is incredible!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Dear Karen, I love the way Maitland writes about solitude, totally different to anything else I have read on the subject.
      Wish you a good weekend!

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