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At the Center of All Beauty

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At the Center of All Beauty

Solitude and the Creative Life

Bookseller Recommendation

At the Center of All Beauty

“"Solitude" is a seductive word in our chaotic times, but Johnson doesn't just mean a quiet week in the woods to rejuvenate us for the rat race. His solitude is a lifelong vocation, a choice made by the artists he profiles—and by himself—to live as "solitaries," uncoupled for the most part (and often celibate) and devoted to creative work that unites them not with a single person but with all of humanity. Some of his ideals are familiar (Thoreau, Dickinson, and Cezanne, from whom he borrows his cover image), but he also includes Rabindranath Tagore, Nina Simone, Bill Cunningham, and even rehabilitates Rod McKuen! The most moving passages concern his self-described "bent sexuality" and his family's formative friendship with their neighboring monks in Kentucky, including Thomas Merton. You'll be glad to draw some deep breaths of rarer air with his help.”

Phinney Books image Tom, Phinney Books


A profound meditation on accepting and celebrating one's solitude. Solitude is the inspirational core for many writers, artists, and thinkers. Alone with our thoughts, we can make discoveries that matter not only to us but to others. To be solitary is not only to draw sustenance from being alone, but to know that our ultimate responsibility is not only to our partner or our own offspring, but to a larger community.

Fenton Johnson's lyrical prose and searching sensibility explores what it means to choose to be solitary and celebrates the notion that solitude is a legitimate and dignified calling. He delves into the lives and works of nearly a dozen iconic "solitaries" he considers his kindred spirits, from Thoreau at Walden Pond and Emily Dickinson in Amherst, to Bill Cunningham photographing the streets of New York, from Cézanne (married, but solitary nonetheless) painting Mt. St. Victoire over and over again, to the fiercely self-protective Zora Neale Hurston. Each character portrait is full of intense detail, the bright wakes they've left behind illuminating Fenton Johnson's own journey from his childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky to his travels alone throughout the world and the people he has lost and found along the way.

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