Book List: Community, Technology and Loneliness

Why are so many Americans living by themselves?

That was the big question in an article/book in the New Yorker I read earlier this week that centered on New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, a look at the benefits and consequences of a world where being single and living alone is becoming increasingly more common. In part:

Few things are less welcome today than protracted solitude—a life style that, for many people, has the taint of loserdom and brings to mind such characters as Ted Kaczynski and Shrek. Does aloneness deserve a less untoward image? Aside from monastic seclusion, which is just another way of being together, it is hard to come up with a solitary life that doesn’t invite pity, or an enviable loner who’s not cheating the rules. …

And yet the reputation of modern solitude is puzzling, because the traits enabling a solitary life—financial stability, spiritual autonomy, the wherewithal to buy more dishwashing detergent when the box runs out—are those our culture prizes. Plus, recent demographic shifts suggest that aloneness, far from fading out in our connected age, is on its way in.

In addition to making me deeply excited about reading Klinenberg’s book, the article helped me do one of my favorite things: come up with a book list! For your possible reading pleasures, I give you Books on the Cost of Living Alone.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam: In this 2001 book, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that the organizations that fueled democracy — like the local bowling league — are falling apart, to the detriment of civil society. This book has made an infinite number of college sociology reading lists, but I’ve actually never sat down to read it. It seems an obvious, and important, choice for a list of books on aloneness.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle: Many books that focus on modern technology hone in on what technology is doing to fundamentally change the way we think. In Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle explores how people are learning to function without face-to-face contact  and whether the technologies that claim to bring us closer together — Facebook, text messaging, or emailing — are really doing their job.

Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White: Although many of us can claim to feel lonely once in a while, those who suffer from chronic and severe loneliness experience feelings of disconnect and frustration almost constantly. In this memoir, White uses her personal struggle with loneliness as a narrative to explore the most recent science of this condition, the stigmas attached to loneliness, and what can be done to help those who struggle with it.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky: I suspect that the conclusions about how technology affects society in Here Comes Everybody will be almost entirely the opposite of Turkle’s conclusions in Alone Together, but conflict is what makes a great book list. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky, a communications professor, argues that new online technologies are facilitating and enabling a new world of grassroots activism and the nature of organizations themselves.

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