Johnson, who... reveals that he has remained largely uncoupled in his adult life, is exquisitely alive to the bad chatter that 'solitaries'— his ter for those who are solo by choice — attract ... In this lyrical yet finely argued book, Johnson sets out to show that being alone — so different from loneliness, its direct opposite, in fact — is absolutely essential to the creative life ... The revelation that artists are tricky to live with hardly seems sufficient roughage for a whole book. But Johnson is clear that when he talks about the 'creative life' he means far more than the pursuit of individual excellence and glittering prizes. He is thinking instead about something closer to communal service, a caring for the world that depends on the setting aside of self ... What is this special quality, then, that is available only once we have learned to be truly alone? ... the deeper [Johnson] looks, the more distinct each of his emblematic figures becomes, so that, by the end of the book, it seems foolish to expect some secret formula by which Rabindranath Tagore, Eudora Welty and Nina Simone can be bound together. Ultimately Johnson’s answer seems to be that the more fully we can learn to exist without the 'social fiction' of coupled togetherness, the more likely we are to be able to live most fully, and usefully, in the world, whether as librettist or librarian, wife or friend.
Johnson elegantly blends memoir, philosophical musings and literary inquiry as he explores how other writers and artists have faced the challenge of “solving' loneliness by converting it into solitude ... Somewhat counterintuitively in a book about solitude, Johnson is a congenial and companionable guide, ushering us through the thicket of loneliness and into the clearing of solitude. He writes with grace, insight and humility. At the Center of All Beauty has great appeal even for those who may not fashion themselves as solitaries but who nonetheless crave more contemplation and self-awareness in their lives.
...a more flexible and forgiving approach to the subject of solitude. Rather than suggesting that the benefits of solitude come only with suffering and deep study, this book serves up encouragement to the would-be solitary and offers examples of the ways solitude can structure our lives ... [a] thoughtful exploration of how discovering that one is 'not the marrying kind'—whether that means being gay or not—can be the path to the sort of career that Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James or Eudora Welty enjoyed.