Most people feel ambivalent about solitude, both loving and fearing it depending on how they experience being alone at certain points in their lives. In The Value of Solitude, John Barbour explores some of the ways in which experiences of solitude, both positive and negative, have been interpreted as religiously significant. He also shows how solitude can raise ethical questions as writers evaluate the virtues and dangers of aloneness and consider how social interaction and withdrawal can most meaningfully be combined in a life.
Barbour’s work differs from previous books about solitude in two ways: it links solitude with ethics and spirituality, and it approaches solitude by way of autobiography. Barbour ranges from the early Christian and medieval periods to the twentieth century in examining the varieties of solitary experience of writers such as Augustine, Petrarch, Montaigne, Gibbon, Rousseau, Thoreau, Thomas Merton, and Paul Auster. For many authors, the process of writing an autobiography is itself conceived of as a form of solitude, a detachment from others in order to discover or create a new sense of personal identity. Solitude helps these authors to reorient their lives according to their moral ideals and spiritual aspirations.
The Value of Solitude both traces the persistence and vitality of the theme of solitude in autobiography and shows how the literary form and structure of autobiography are shaped by ethical and religious reflection on aloneness. This work should appeal to scholars in the fields of religious studies and theology, to literary critics and specialists in autobiography, and to readers interested in the experience of solitude and its moral and spiritual significance.
This is a powerful, comprehensive, and highly original book, impressive in terms of both its breadth of coverage and its depth of insight. It is a pleasure to read how vigorously the author speaks out for the moral and spiritual aspects of solitude in the age of a postmodern theory that allows little or no agency to a scattered and textually constituted subject. The Value of Solitude is a work of mature scholarship and probing critical reflection.