Sunday, August 23, 2009

(15) Party Of One: The Loners’ Manifesto

By Anneli Rufus

Alone, we are alive.

Everyone’s got an idea about what the archetypal ‘loner’ is. Usually the associations are negative. Like loners are anti-social or asocial dweebs. Loners have no life. Loners are, well, losers. At first glance, a manifesto for loners seems, well, paradoxical. But the author makes the argument that a loner is an oft-misused identity label, and her book pretty much tries to dispel the common misconceptions, and in the end, reclaim the word for the loner community – if there is such a thing!

Though I’m more of an introvert than a loner (more like an introvert\extravert, or ambivert, really!), I’ve always valued solitude and a part of me has always identified with the loner mentality. So when I heard about this book, I was quite interested in reading it.

Early on, the author makes clear that this is not a new agey or self-help book. Yet a title search for Party of One on online bookstores yields a bevy of recommended reads such as “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, or “The Highly Sensitive Person”, or “Intimacy and Solitude”, or “The Happy Introvert: A Wild and Crazy Guide for Celebrating Your True Self”. Of course, Rufus regards these types of books disdainfully, as she writes:

There are books, out there, about solitude. They give instructions on being alone. These books talk of “stealing away,” of “retreats” and of “seeking sanctuary.” They pose solitude as novelty and a desperate act: the work of thieves and refugees. But for loners, the idea of solitude is not some stark departure from our normal state. We do not need writers to tell us how lovely apartness is, how sacred it was to the sages, what it did for Thoreau, that we must demand it. Those books are not for loners, not really. This is not one of those books.

So Rufus embarks on the task of defining what it means to be a loner. It has absolutely nothing to do with being lonely and has everything to do with embracing true independence. Yes, loners prefer to be left alone, but they use their solitude constructively. They tend to be opinionated, curious, intelligent, creative, and nonconformist. Largely because they feel no need to compete, they ae notably calm and stress-free and robustly happy.

There are basically two camps: the loners and nonloners (guess which group the status quo belong). The reason she is so critical of nonloners is because they are the ones that have given loners a bad name, mainly because they simply cannot conceive of true loneness. Take for example, the almost “ironclad” conventional attitude that holidays should never be celebrated alone, since for nonloners, the prospect of holidays alone is “truly horrifying”. Ah, those silly nonloners!

Rufus explores how pop culture and the media have perpetuated positive and negative images of the socalled loner, much of which comes from loners themselves. She looks at loners of yore, ie. hermits, monks and anchoresses, and phony loners, ie. bedcases. She looks at how loners deal with love and work. And she also brings up famous loners, like Piet Mondrian, and makes the case of how loners can be misunderstood:

By all accounts, Mondrian was a contented man. He was not a crazy man or a lonely man or a suicidal man or a failure or a man who lived in squalor. He had social graces, knew his manners, but chose not to be in situations where these would be called upon. Fully functional, he published an art magazine and achieved great renown in his own time. For his troubles this quiet figure was lambasted by one art critic as a “cold, ruthless Dutchman.: Like any loner whose openness to others goes only this far and no farther, Mondrian would of course be called ruthless.

When Rufus gets to the subject of loner-bashing in law enforcement it gets the most interesting. It’s amazing to learn how the vast majority of criminology experts and FBI profilers still rely on archaic definitions of personality types and fail to grasp some basic distinctions. The l-word is far too often “too loosely applied, or even misapplied”. The author writes:

What we have here is a crisis of semantics. The word “loner,” based on the shallowest impressions of surface appearances, is being used wholesale to tar an amazing diversity of people – most of them not loners – with the same mucky brush.

Rufus wants to make clear that being a loner is not the same as being a social outcast or sociopath. But too often “loner” is used in place of these words. She uses Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber as the classic example of the mislabeled criminal loner. As a teenager who was so far ahead of his peers intellectually, he became regarded as “a freak by a large segment of the student body.” Kacynski was actually a nonloner who came to resemble a loner because he was an outcast. As he admitted once in a letter to his mother: “…the many rejections, humiliations and other painful influences that I underwent during adolescence at home, in high school and at Harvard have conditioned me to be afraid of people.”

What Rufus tries to point out that these so-called loner criminals who seek revenge, retaliation or retribution… well, these are not the motives that move loners. We do not want those things from others – acceptance and admiration and control and power – that make social people kill. We neither hang nor thrive on what others think, say or do. The fact that we mind our own business saves us from the types of torment that typically lead to violence. We want nothing from others but to be left alone.

Yes. It did take me a little while to get past the overall snooty tone of the writing. As a writer, Rufus is more insightful than entertaining. There are no humorous anecdotes, as she does not aim to amuse, but to enlighten. In the end though, I was indeed very much enlightened and I ended up enjoying this book after all!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book 14 – Post Captain

By Patrick O’Brian

Even though Redwing beat me to it, his review was rather paltry ;-), so here’s my attempt!

I was quite looking forward to reading this, as I enjoyed Master and Commander tremendously. The 2nd installment picks up where the first book left off, and begins rather like a Jane Austen novel with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin ensconced in the English countryside. They soon become acquainted with their neighbours -- the “feminine household” of Mapes Court. O’Brian does a wonderful job of introducing each female character. I was immediately drawn to the cynical and brilliant widow, Diana Villiers, who becomes entangled in a romantic triangle with Jack and Stephen. She says things like “Thou looks’t like Antichrist in that lewd hat” to her younger cousin.

Even though Diana believes that “there is no friendship in men”, she and Stephen strike up an unusual yet platonic relationship. “You do know I am a woman, Maturin?” Yet the harmony does not last long, as things get complicated when Jack enters the scene!

As expected, there are many humourous and lighthearted moments, like when Stephen and Jack flee to Spain in a ridiculous disguise that I won’t give away, and how Preserved Killick becomes Jack’s steward. And there is O’Brian’s brilliant writing. Whether it’s describing Jack’s internal thoughts:

Yet the surface of his mind was taken up less with his coming interview than with getting the utmost possible service from a single handkerchief and with vague darting reflections upon poverty – an old acquaintance, almost a friend – a more natural state for sea-officers than wealth – wealth very charming – should love to be rich again; but there was the loss of all those little satisfactions of contriving – the triumph of a guinea found in an old waistcoat pocket – the breathless tension over the turn of a card.

Or about Jack and Stephen’s friendship:

They were looking after themselves, living with rigid economy; and there was no greater proof of their friendship than the way their harmony withstood their very grave differences in domestic behaviour. In Jack’s opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic’d bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cozy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade.

I can understand why fans would read all 20 books in the series. If every book contained scatterings of little gems such as these, I too would be happy to read all 20 indeed!

However, nothing is ever perfect, not even a Patrick O’Brian book.

With Post Captain at almost 500 pages, it was frankly, quite a slog at times. Master & Commander was tighter in structure and plot, and thus more consistently engaging, while Post Captain suffered from too many storylines and lack of cohesion. At times the threads were too vague or subtle for the stop-start reading or perhaps it was that certain key points got buried amidst all the male-driven action and politics, cuz I didn’t realize until much later that Jack & Diana were actually having an illicit affair!

In the end, it took me much longer to read the second installment than the first. In order to recall all the events, I found a blog which provides an amusing condensed version of what goes down in Post Captain. Another review also sums up the more critical feelings I had for the 2nd installment quite nicely.

So yes, as many flaws as there are gems, but I'd read the next installment without hesitation, though I may take a long break before I do so, as there are many other books to read!