Books

Book cover: various illustrations of fish swimming around the book title.

Kerri Sackville
The Secret Life of You

In our wired world, to be offline and alone feels rare. Recent books such as Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism have become popular guidebooks for resisting the corrosive attention economy and embracing analogue activities in the name of solitude and self-reflection.

Writer and columnist Kerri Sackville joins the chorus with The Secret Life of You, arguing for a return to inner contemplation to gain “the life-changing benefits of learning to be comfortable in your company”. The book first takes stock of the social and cultural biases against being alone. These range from how society places moral judgements on people based on their relationships or lack thereof, to practices of daily life, such as career and sport, that favour collaboration over individual effort. “We don’t see solitariness as a positive choice,” Sackville writes. “We see it only as a withdrawal from society.”

Sackville’s own stories about avoiding time alone with technology while she navigated the fallout from her divorce are touching and relatable. We often chase distraction to escape our emotional turmoil, she says. Despite the stigma, there are enormous benefits for carving out time for self-reflection. Those who dedicate time to being alone – whether for mindfulness, thinking or daydreaming – enjoy greater creativity, show higher empathy and can better regulate their emotions. She suggests techniques to cultivate a rich inner life, from solitary sojourns in nature to regularly asking oneself open-ended questions.

While The Secret Life of You is a noble project, its approach is unsatisfying and generalised. Short chapters with punny subheadings read like self-contained columns and are often slim on insight.

The nods Sackville makes to other books on silence and re-engaging with our tactile world, such as Quiet by Susan Cain or Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, are brief but insightful, which makes you more interested in seeking out these seemingly richer sources. Elsewhere, some claims are jarring – such as our minds being untapped “content creators generating endless material” – while often the interview material, including many anonymised social media messages, is unanchored and tenuous.

This earnest attempt to argue the possibility of a more profound inner life is hamstrung by its reliance on truisms and psychobabble. The Secret Life of You leaves you wanting more substance and instruction – which may be more likely found by seeking out the titles in the end notes.

Pantera Press, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "The Secret Life of You".

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