Will Self – Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Long-Form Fiction

In Will Self’s lecture at Brunel University earlier this year, here ,  speaking  with his usual wit and erudition on isolation, the novel and the culture of the codex. A very thought-provoking lecture, on many issues, some we don’t really consider deeply and some taken for granted. For instance, reading in solitude/isolation is a skill we have learned to do over time. I never thought about it like that. There are other points mentioned in the lecture which  I thought useful for my current practice such as his views on the importance of reading and its origins. Below are a few notes taken from the lecture, some relevant, some non-relevant and some just for humor value :

“I believe the era of the codex is coming to an end”

“A shift from dead tree culture to a binary on/off culture”

“The writer needs isolation” (then Self answers is own question when explaining why he gets up so early in the morning) “Solitude, silence and having your own mind present to you”


  Q: “If writing is the act of a solitary man or woman then what else is? – Reading”

   A: “It requires solitude”

“Reading isn’t like speech we’re not high-wired for it, it was a technology that was acquired over millennia”

“……how the alphabet came into being you can see how complex, remarkably involved and socio-culturally relative a skill it is”

(mentioning one of his favourite anecdotes) “Augustine of Hippo and Bishop Ambrose, Augustine went to see Ambrose (4th  century) and the bishop was in his garden in Milan and Augustine came upon him and Bishop Ambrose was reading silently, Augustine was profoundly shocked, he’d never seen a man read a book, not aloud”

“The model of reading was a monk reading to his brothers or a mother…”

“You’ll put vast amounts of cognitive activity into your visualization or you’re imagining what the writer is trying to convey to you”

Self’s rhetorical questions to consider:

“What’s going to happen to it (reading) in the wired world?”

“What will happen to this quality of solitude that is required by both writers and readers in a world that we’re all permanently connected and permanently in conversation with each other?


“The global village and the medium is the expression” phrases coined by McLuhan

“There are a lot of digital immigrants trying to teach a lot of digital natives and a lot of digital immigrants are what McLuhan would call Gutenberg minds, minds that are formed by the idea of the codex”

“Those Gutenberg minds have learned how to commit a lot of data to memory”

“Almost all human knowledge is digitalized and easily and readily accessible”

Re the text: “It ceases to be this isolation module, it ceases to be the form which represents your unitary consciousness in that way”

Re the novel: “It’s entered a kind of care home where it’s being looked after”



Enemies of Promise (Cyril Connolly, 1938)

Understanding Media (Marshall McLuhan, 1959)



















Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s