The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society

Image of The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society
Release Date: 
August 23, 2022
Henry Holt and Co.
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The End of Solitude is bright, readable, and absorbing—pure Deresiewicz.”

These are sharp, provocative essays from a cultural critic who fled Yale, at age 44, after 10 years teaching there (1998–2008), for the perils of the freelance life.

Deresiewicz burst upon the scene in 2014 with his scathing Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, an evisceration that underscored his disdain for elite higher education. He had published two books earlier, on Jane Austin, while still wearing his hat as a member in good standing of Yale’s English department.

In The End of Solitude, he offers some 40 essays on cultural topics, from the relationship between the internet and loneliness; to takedowns on sacred cows of academia like Harold Bloom, a former colleague; to the need for “thinkers” in positions of leadership, which he explained to cadets at West Point.

The book may be considered a compendium of the author’s greatest essay hits to date, except that it slips in some minor efforts, evidence that Deresiewicz understands the freelancer’s need to produce.

Odd to think the authorities at Yale were not put off by the author’s resume. He earned three degrees at different schools at Columbia University. His B.A. was in biology and psychology. His master’s was in journalism at the Columbia J School. And his PhD was in English.

He was not destined to mouth politically correct platitudes at faculty teas, as the pieces in this collection make clear.

Instead, he takes exception to much of the nonsense he sees around him, notable at elite institutions of higher education, like Yale, which led him to a deep understanding of Jane Austen but unable to talk to his plumber.

“The first disadvantage of an elite education is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t exactly like you, for the simple reason that you never meet any of them.” Another is that “I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.”

Elite institutions “are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terrence’s ‘Nothing human is alien to me,’” he writes. “The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.

His biggest takeaway from a decade at Yale: “The worst mistake was to think for yourself.”

As for “the end of solitude” of the title essay, he believes we have been nudged here by the convergence of the camera and the computer—technologies that reveal our deep desire for celebrity and connectivity.

“This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected; it wants to be seen. If not by the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then by the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”

Sitting alone at our computers, we have lost much.

“First, the propensity for introspection, the examination of the self. . . . Lost, as well, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world—that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same web page is considered an eternity.”

Small wonder that Deresiewicz turns away from the frantic fruits of today’s technologies. He celebrates the lives of solitude and contemplation pursued by such intellectuals as those he writes about here: author Alfred Kazin, who took joy in “picking a fight with the world;” and critic Harold Rosenberg, who “kept faith with his estrangement.”

Like him, they poked holes in orthodoxies, preferring not to join the crowd.

This collection may well draw some readers to Deresiewicz’s longer forays, such as The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech (2020).

The End of Solitude is bright, readable, and absorbing—pure Deresiewicz.