September 19, 1988 12:00 PM

by Anthony Storr

If this were a pop-psych self-help book—which, thank goodness, it is not—it would be called something like I’m OK, It Doesn’t Matter What You Are. Storr, a British psychiatrist who teaches at Oxford, observes that Western cultures have come to equate mental health and adjustment to people’s ability to get along with others. Storr has nothing against people getting along with each other, whether casually or intimately, but he argues that being alone, even for extended periods of time, can be a productive, satisfying, “normal” way of life: “Intimate attachments are a hub around which a person’s life revolves, not necessarily the hub.” Be warned that this book does not make Storr seem like the sort of hip, chatty guy who gets to talk with Oprah and Phil on TV. He often digresses, for one thing, into the kind of obsessive Freudian vs. Jungian arguments that seem as relevant and significant as the Trigger vs. Champion debates that used to go on between fans of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Storr also writes in doggedly academic prose, full of “as we shall sees” and “as we have seens.” He has an eye for the telling quote, though, citing noted loner Franz Kafka’s belief that a writer can only achieve self-revelation when by himself: “That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.” Storr even shows a sense of humor, recalling historian Edward Gibbon’s reflections on marriage: “When I have painted in my fancy all the probable consequences of such a union, I have started from my dream, rejoiced in my escape, and ejaculated a thanksgiving that I was still in possession of my natural freedom.” While little of Solitude is that lighthearted, any writer who argues so cogently for the value of contemplation is to be thanked. Anyway, the book is only 208 pages long, and one can gain a sense of almost poetic appreciation by reading it, oh, on a bus trapped in a traffic jam or on a bench at the mall. (Free Press, $17.95)

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