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At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  326 ratings  ·  82 reviews
Whether seeking more time for solitude or suffering what seems a surfeit of it, readers will find the best of companions here. Fenton Johnson’s lyrical prose and searching sensibility explores what it means to choose to be solitary and celebrates the notion, common in his Roman Catholic childhood, that solitude is a legitimate and dignified calling. He delves into the live ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published March 10th 2020 by W. W. Norton Company
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Chris LaTray
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020
I don't recall ever being personally affected by a book in the way I have been by this one. I'm reminded of when a handful of introvert acquaintances urged me to read Susan Cain's Quiet. I enjoyed that book, but it didn't reach me nearly to the depth that Fenton Johnson's latest has. This one seemed to alternate between being written for me and being written about me. Johnson has perfectly articulated so many of the ways I view the world, and my place in it, that it is almost frightening. It is ...more
Purchasing books is a Las Vegas roll of the dice. Purchasing hardcovers even more so. Still, the description of this book placed it right in my wheelhouse. That's the beauty of chance, I guess. The "fun" comes in learning by reading.

The focus here is on solitary sorts or, as author Fenton Johnson refers to them, "my solitaries." The possessive pronoun, used over and over, got to me a little bit, as it made it seem like real people from the past were part of his glass menagerie or something.

We Are All Mad Here
What I wanted from this book was a pleasant discussion of solitude: what it is, what it's good for, why we (or some of us) love it, how we can find more of it. And so on.

Which is not what I got from this book. Not necessarily because it wasn't there, but because my mind went completely blank by the end of sentences like this one:

"And - with full and necessary and sorrowful acknowledgment of institutionalized religion's evils, horrors, and omissions - perhaps the exploded and fragmented nature o
Stephany Wilkes
May 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Oh, Fenton Johnson, he gets me, he really gets me, validating life choices all over the place, and kindly noting "solitaries within marriage." This book is so much more than that, of course. Perhaps one of my favorite things about it is historical reclamation, righting the story on those "lonely" women, so labeled by men writing about them. Johnson says wait, there's more, not quite so, and to have those women's stories now -- better late than never -- is mesmerizing. As someone raised, like Joh ...more
Michael Perkins
This book was not quite what I expected, even after reading reviews and the sample Amazon sent to me. Most chapters are entirely devoted to a particular artist or two, visual or literary, in whose life the author goes into detail and explains how they impacted his life as a solitary author. I confess I did not connect that well with the examples he chose, except maybe Nietzsche, who only took up a small section of one chapter.

My preferred book on this topic is this one.....

Rory Litwin
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. Beautifully written. Very helpful to those of us who are loners or solitaries, or "not the marrying kind," in that it helps us understand our choice or nature in a positive light in a society that views marriage and family as the only valid way to live as an adult. I want to go read some Thoreau and Thomas Merton now.... ...more
Ryan Creed
May 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
I wanted this solitary gay man to give me insight into being a solitary gay man. Turns out, I'm more misanthropic than I am solitary. ...more
I am not surprised that the Goodreads tells me that "readers also liked" Rebecca Solnit's new memoir. I was reading both books together and was nearly driven mad by the utter lack of substance. There is flowery, elaborate, circuitous prose that fills up page after page but really says nothing. It is all the more frustrating because they are writing about things that I am passionately interested - and invested - in.

For a long while, I thought I wanted to be never be married or partnered, and grow
Crystal Hammon
Dec 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, biography
If you were to draw a Venn diagram that describes this work, Fenton Johnson has written a brilliant book that lands in convergent space of biography and art, but to creatives and solitaries, it is so much more. Johnson mines the lives of artists such as Eudora Welty, Paul Cezanne, Bill Cunningham, Walt Whitman, Nina Simone and many others to reveal the very distinct difference between being a loner and a solitary.

To those who already recognize this distinction through our own lives, this book i
Oct 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In April of 2015, eating dinner by myself in a neighbourhood restaurant/bar, I read Fenton Johnson’s essay “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude” in that month’s HARPER’S. I was in early sobriety at the time, not yet two years clean and sober (a milestone I would reach in November of that year), and the daily solitary meal at a neighbourhood restaurant was part of a basic regimen of self-care crucial to what was still a fairly new mode of existence. I liked Johnson’s essay very ...more
Jun 23, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
Wanted to like this more that I did, but what are you gonna do? Crazy thing on Amazon is there is nothing but 5-star reviews! I can only suppose that Johnson or his publisher sent the book to five of his solitary friends and asked them to pen a few good words. IMHO this book is not that good. How can you compare Walt Whitman and Rod McKuen? Emily Dickinson and this Indian Tagore fellow? Okay, they were both "solitaries," but you can't pick and randomly chose your examples to prove your thesis. O ...more
Kayla Mckinney
Mar 05, 2020 rated it liked it
Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty is actually several books in one. It’s a memoir about living alone and learning to live alone. It’s an exploration of several famous figures who chose solitary lives but still contributed to society. It’s a literary exploration ranging from Emily Dickinson to Henry James. It’s a call to understand that biological offspring aren’t the only kind – that we can be impactful on the lives around us even if we don’t have children of our own. It’s also a sort ...more
Mar 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, essays
Loved this. Beautiful prose and a subject that is right up my alley. Inspiring, soothing and thought provoking on either choosing or ending up in solitude and focusing on creative outlets.
Camille Cusumano
Jun 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“The secret to contentment is low overhead,” writes Fenton Johnson. The award-winning writer explains that this advice in his new book, "At the Center of All Beauty, Solitude and the Creative Life," is a variation on Marianne Moore’s version, “The cure for loneliness is solitude.” His book is balm, validation, even celebration of all “solitaries,” his description for those of us who, like him, actively cherish and thrive in solitude. We solitaries draw our creative and artistic juices from withi ...more
Bill Coan
Mar 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beauty Laid Bare

Anyone who has searched restlessly for beauty or self-understanding will be delighted by the discoveries Fenton Johnson has made and reported in this lovely book of research and reflection.

Even when Johnson’s discoveries are the product of research, they are presented with Johnson’s characteristic eye for memorable formulations, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s joy at “rubbing a paragraph with a soft cloth,” and St. Anthony’s guidance to “teach the gospel, and, if you must, use words
May 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
When I started this book I almost put it down, it wasn’t what I expected for some reason. Then I recalled when a wise person told me “reading isn’t always about entertainment sometimes it’s about learning and understanding the human condition.” So I stuck with it and am glad I did.
Cass Vogel
Sep 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Sometimes reads too much like a history lesson but overall I still got a lot out of this. Much to think about. Great read for artists, skeptics of marriage, friendship enthusiasts, anti capitalists, and anyone who may have dabbled in SLAA.
Alexandra Plesa
May 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Oct 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book was LOVELY. It was a joy to read, and offers much to think about! Reading is such a solitary activity outwardly but inwardly it is vibrant and rich with life!! Highly recommend this read, this man sure knows how to write a sentence.
Vincent DiGirolamo
Jul 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, non-fiction
There is certainly a place in the world for a book like this. A meditation that mixes memoir, profile, and polemic. Johnson defines solitaries broadly to include his heroes (and now mine too), however well or poorly they conform to the monkish, contemplative mode, and he makes a case for their superiority—the advantages of the friendship of many over the devotion to one. It's also a sad celebration of gayness, entailing as it did (does?) loss due to AIDS and unsought alienation. I read it to lea ...more
Sep 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Amazing work about harnessing the power of solitude!
Matt Graupman
Sep 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
Some people can’t stand being alone while others actually find solitude to be quite rejuvenating. I tend to fall into the latter category. Being by myself has never really bothered me and, in fact, I sometimes crave a little “me time” (maybe going to the movies alone, or reading a book, or drawing by myself, etc.) Author Fenton Johnson is also a member of this tribe and he argues in his book, “At The Center Of All Beauty: Solitude And The Creative Life,” that solitude is really a higher calling, ...more
Aug 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Beautiful meditation on solitude, loneliness, celibacy, friendship and more, interwoven with the memoirs of a solitary man and stories of famous solitary creatives: Walt Whitman, Nina Simone, Eudora Welty, Henry James, Rabindranath Tagore, Paul Cezanne, and so on.

Argues that solitude is often perceived to be a negative by (primarily Western) standards that gradually turned the idea of friendship and partnership with another soul into the ownership-based, all-or-nothing, us-vs-them institution t
May 13, 2020 rated it did not like it
The author seems so bent on proving his thesis (that the famous people he writes about are solitaries) that he imposes that interpretation onto them even when the evidence doesn't seem to bear its weight (they were solitaries within a marriage, for example). I didn't find his interpretation to shed light on the famous people he profiled. Overall, it felt like the author got too much in the way. ...more
Apr 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer-studies
A study of solitary artists revealing the value inherent in a quiet life. Essential reading for any who venture to practice creativity and stillness.
May 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Through several case studies of the lives and work of painters, writers, poets, musicians, himself, and the solitaries he has encountered in his everyday life, Fenton Johnson makes a solid case for recognizing and valuing the "third calling"--not to marriage and family life, or to the priesthood, but to secular solitude. This, from a man who spent his childhood getting to know Thomas Merton and the other seminarians who regularly came over for dinner. (Merton's 'Thoughts in Solitude' changed my ...more
Glad to have read it, but the experience was uneven. After the earlier chapters, which I loved, the book felt all over the place. The chapter on Tagore seemed to have little to do with solitude compared with other profiles. Not sure about some of the conclusions, and I don't think being a solitary is a "hero's journey."

"Let us start by turning off our phones and spending more time alone." (15)

" cultivate in every moment presence to the beauty of the world." (34)

"...even those called
Lit Folio
Sep 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I originally read the author's moving essay in Harper's five years ago and have re-read it on occasion to assure myself that this had to be one of the most moving and original testaments to a kind of life rarely given much attention, if not, compete admonishment from any society--be it artistic, creative or otherwise. That's what astounded me upon reading Mr Johnson's unusual essay: no one, in my mind, in our contemporary world, had ever written such a treatise. So I was pleased to learn--from t ...more
Miz Lizzie
An interesting hybrid of essay, memoir, and reflection on the lives of a selection of solitary creatives, the book succeeded the best for me when Fenton Johnson shared his own story and his thoughts on the essential role and value of the solitary, not only for personal creativity but for the good of society as a whole. As a solitary myself (even when I was partnered), I certainly resonated with the challenges and gifts this presents in society's laser-beam orientation towards the coupled and, ev ...more
At the end of this book, Fenton Johnson says he wrote it "to study, learn from, and celebrate the lives of those who have been chosen by or who choose solitude and to investigate the roots of my affection for being alone." He does just that and I like it best when he's using a light hearted conversational tone to describe himself and his solitary compadres, like Cezanne, who working at the edge of diabetic collapse and bad eyes, might owe some of his art to "high blood sugar." More than his stud ...more
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Fenton Johnson is an award-winning author who teaches in the creative writing programs at the University of Arizona and Spalding University.

Librarian note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.


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“To choose to be alone is to bait the trap, to create a space the demons cannot resist entering. And that's the good news; the demons that enter can be named, written about, and tamed through the miracle of the healing word, the miracle of art, the miracle of silence.” 3 likes
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