Review by Brian Tanguay
After reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, I was hooked on William Deresiewicz. The next book of his that I read, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech only cemented my admiration. Deresiewicz is a writer of range and insight, and his latest book due out in August 2022, The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society, further proves that he is of a rare breed: a writer always worth reading.
I read The End of Solitude slowly, in sips rather than gulps, marking or underlining dozens of passages along the way. Whether writing about what neoliberalism has done to American higher education, dance, the hipster culture of Portland, the work of Mark Greif, or his Jewish upbringing, Deresiewicz is clear, exact, and precise. He constructs beautiful sentences which often remind me of the late novelist Philip Roth. Like Roth, Deresiewicz is whip smart, erudite, and an artisan of language. Words and their meaning matter to Deresiewicz as does the discipline of thinking. The work of thinking, of reasoning, and of deciding for oneself is a theme that recurs often in his work. He writes, “Trying to think — overcoming the comfort of not thinking, which tempts us everywhere at every moment — is even more difficult. To be an intellectual is not an intellectual activity alone; it is a moral one, as well.”
The essays are divided into six categories, Technology Culture, Higher Education, The Social Imagination, Arts, Letters, and My People. I found gems in each category, though my favorite pieces were in Higher Education. Deresiewicz spent a decade in academia, teaching at Yale, and some of his best writing is about the many ways higher education has been perverted; astronomical increases in tuition, heavy reliance on poorly compensated adjunct faculty, proliferation of non-faculty administrative positions, and the posturing and machinations attendant with earning tenure. Deresiewicz found himself out-of-step in this milieu partly because he sincerely believed in reading books to learn from them, not to interrogate them, in thinking with both feet tethered to the ground, and writing, not like an academic writing for an audience of other academics, but in accessible language. He was also committed to helping students become better — as readers, writers, thinkers, and, ultimately, more evolved versions of themselves. Deresiewicz argues passionately and persuasively for the value of the humanities and the proposition that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. Amen.
The End of Solitude is a treasure trove, a rich vein of lucid thinking from one of the most astute social critics working today; it’s a book I plan to keep close at hand. If there’s one thing America desperately needs at this moment it’s clear thinking. The rigorous, fearless brand of thinking and questioning that Deresiewicz advocates is what leads to a virtue that seems sadly absent in our time: wisdom. Wisdom achieved through lived experience and deep thought, not bestowed by fortunate birth or the result of an elite education or earning buckets of money on Wall Street or because one has millions of followers on social media. “If you want to see what happens when power is exercised in the absence of wisdom,” Deresiewicz writes, “you can look at today’s whiz kids, the ones who run Silicon Valley and therefore determine so much of our world.”
When I read William Deresiewicz I know I am in the presence of someone deeply grounded in fundamental principles, the timeless verities of wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.
The End of Solitude will be published in August 2022 by Henry Holt And Company