At the Center of All Beauty

Solitude and the Creative Life

W.W. Norton & Company

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 a 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, common in his Roman Catholic childhood, 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.

Combining memoir, social criticism, and careful research, At the Center of All Beauty resonates with all solitaries and all who might wish to carve out more space for solitude.

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Praise from Readers and Reviewers

“. . . lyrical yet finely argued . . . 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.”
   — The New York Times Book Review

“[A] flexible and forgiving approach to the subject of solitude . . . [A] thoughtful exploration.”
   — The Wall Street Journal

“. . . a fluid pastiche of memoir, social critique, literary criticism, mystical insights, and philosophical reflections . . . poetic yet profoundly accessible.”
   — The Bay Area Reporter

“A stirring memoir and social critique . . . delivers abstract concepts with engaging clarity.”
   — Publishers Weekly

“A lovely mediation on what it means to be an artist.”
   — Booklist

“Memories of Johnson’s childhood and parents as well as stories of friends and old lovers surface during bouts of quiet research, growing from well-chosen poems, letters, and interviews into rhapsodic recollections of a profoundly full life. An erudite lesson in embracing aloneness.”
   — Kirkus Review

“In At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, 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. . . . 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 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.”
   — Robert Wiebezahl, Bookpage

“I love Fenton Johnson’s sensibility. It’s a joy and a balm to see the world through his eyes―and to rediscover solitude as our deepest and most powerful source of creativity and spirituality, even for people who are coupled.”
   — Susan Cain, author of Quiet and Quiet Power

“In studies of the lives of beloved artists, and in beautiful meditations on his own life, Fenton Johnson encourages us to understand solitariness as consecration, a fecund, rich condition for the pursuit of beauty. Fenton Johnson’s writing is so companionable and wise that it enacts what it counsels…it converts sterile loneliness to creative solitude.”
   — Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

“A work of staggering tenderness, intelligence and beauty…a new vision of self, community and home. This achingly honest and gorgeously written book should come with a warning: It will change you.”
   — Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Dance of Anger

At the Center of All Beauty was a treasure that I didn’t know I was looking for, one that unearthed and validated buried truths. This small book is incredible, both profound and humane…And yes, it is deeply beautiful. Fenton Johnson is one of our great writers.”
   — Rabih Alameddine, author of The Angel of History and An Unnecessary Woman