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Review: Lonely by Emily White

Review: Lonely by Emily White post image

Title: Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude
Author: Emily White
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2010
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Acquired: From the publisher for TLC Book Tours.
Rating: ★★★★☆

Two Sentence Summary: Emily White has struggled with a feeling of being alone her entire life, but was frustrated by the way the feeling simply wasn’t acknowledged. So she wrote a book about it.

Two Sentence Review: Is it possible to write a memoir about loneliness that is not depressing? Yes, and this book does it really well.

Why I Read It: I enjoy memoirs, and chronic loneliness seemed like an interesting and not-often-covered topic to write about.

Review: Lonely is a hard book to describe. It’s billed as a memoir, but memoir is really only part of it. Lonely is also a well-researched piece of nonfiction, complete with both quantitative (surveys, numbers, studies) and qualitative (interviews, personal stories) information about the idea of loneliness. And it’s a personal and professional argument that chronic loneliness is a real problem, different from depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses, that needs to be recognized and addressed.

My biggest question as I started this book was whether or not reading about chronic loneliness was going to be depressing. In the hands of another author, perhaps, but White wrote in a way where I didn’t feel saddened by the topic. It felt comforting, I guess, to read a book that was so frank about something society is often loathe to really talk about. I’ve never experienced chronic loneliness, but I have felt alone enough times to know that it can be hard to admit the feeling even to people we are close to.

White uses her own history of chronic loneliness as the narrative of the story, starting with her childhood and following the path through her life. She then uses research — both from the limited studies on loneliness and a series of personal interviews she conducted — to round out each of the phases and explore our current thinking on loneliness. I liked White’s experiences for the emotional pull they gave the memoir, but found myself more interested in the research side of the story.

My favorite chapters were the ones on context — the thinking, culture, and taboo surrounding our discussions of loneliness. I think I enjoyed them best because they both stayed away from the “all about me” feel that memoirs can sometimes have and also provided me with some food for thought on my own friendships and occasional loneliness.

For example, White talks about why loneliness is sometimes common for people who live alone — the lack of “passive company,” which White describes as,

the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brothers takes call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the change to simple be with someone.

As someone who lived alone for a couple of years, I know that feeling, of just wanting someone to be around even without really interacting.

I didn’t agree with all of White’s arguments and conclusions. I think there’s a disconnect between her argument that chronic loneliness is a mental illness that the lonely can’t or don’t face, and her suggestions that what the solution is more programs devoted to the problem of loneliness. If people who are chronically lonely don’t face their disease or refuse to talk about it, how will groups for loneliness based on an Alcoholics Anonymous model help them? On the other hand, she makes a good argument that one of the biggest things we need to deal with is the stigma surrounding loneliness, and I suppose if that stigma were lifted more lonely people might be inclined to take part in those programs.

As an aside, White’s writing style is really lovely. She has a way of making feelings and intangible things into really concrete metaphors that I enjoyed throughout the book. Take this description of what a stigma is, for example:

And this means that loneliness possesses the classic properties of a stigma: knowledge of one aspect of a person’s life — in case, a sense of isolation — tips over like a pot of coffee and stains everything else, such as looks, personality, and charm. There’s a blotting-out function that attaches to stigmas: a trait goes from being an aspect of personality to something that engulfs the personality as whole.

I finished this book over the weekend, and I’ve been surprised at how much it’s caused me to think about both loneliness and friendship. While it probably makes a difference that I started reading Gail Caldwell’s memoir about friendship, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, directly after, I think it’s also evidence that Lonely is a book that covers a lot more than its simple title suggests.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours January 19, 2011, 11:18 am

    This sounds like a very thought-provoking book on a topic to which I honestly have never given any thought at all. And a well-written non-fiction book is ALWAYS a treat for me. Sounds like I’ll be looking for this one myself!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour Kim!

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:07 pm

      Heather: I hadn’t thought about it either, other than tangentially when I first moved and was struggling with being in a new city by myself. It’s not nearly the same, but I’m still fascinated by all of the research on loneliness.

  • Care January 19, 2011, 12:27 pm

    Huh? I just might have to read this because it sounds a bit confusing to me.

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:07 pm

      Care: Confusing how? I thought it was a really good book, I probably just made it sound weird 🙂

  • Jenny January 19, 2011, 6:19 pm

    I really like the term “passive company”. I am an introvert, so I get tired from spending lots of active time doing things with people, but passive company soothes and pleases me. I love it when my sisters are all home and we are all just laying around the living room reading.

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:10 pm

      Jenny: I am the same way, that’s why I loved the term. When my sister came to visit, we spent a lot of time just sitting around watching tv and reading, and I felt like that was a great way to spend time together.

  • Trisha January 19, 2011, 7:31 pm

    I am another giant fan of passive company. I wonder if that’s a blogger thing? a reader thing? This sounds like a read I would really like. Thanks!

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:11 pm

      Trisha: I think it’s a reader thing, partially. I go to Boyfriend’s apartment and often just want to read my book, but I want to be where he is because I like having someone nearby. We don’t have to be interacting for it to feel comforting to me.

  • Erin January 19, 2011, 9:05 pm

    Another fan of passive company! My husband and I spend long evenings just being at home together, and I love it.

    I haven’t heard about Lonely before, but it sounds like the sort of nonfiction I tend to enjoy. As I’m trying to read more memoirs this year, I’ll add this one to the list.

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:13 pm

      Erin: I loved this as a memoir because it included a lot of the author’s experiences, but also research and other voices to round things out. I don’t know the best way to describe it, but it was great. I hope you get a chance to read it.

  • Anna January 20, 2011, 8:38 am

    This sounds very interesting. I don’t like those “all about me” memoirs, so I’ll keep this one in mind.

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:14 pm

      Anna: Awesome. The first few chapters are very author-centered, but it gets less “about me” as it goes on. She just needs the first chapters for setup, I think.

  • nomadreader (Carrie) January 21, 2011, 1:33 pm

    Now this one sounds good! I’m hoping and planning to read more memoirs in 2011, and this one sounds intriguing to me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • Kim January 21, 2011, 11:25 pm

      Carrie: Yes, it is intriguing! I totally recommend this one for people interested in memoirs.

  • Aarti January 21, 2011, 7:25 pm

    What an interesting topic for a book! Though I think I’m on your side on the whole idea of there needing to be help groups for loneliness. I don’t think that would help much if you don’t want to interact with people.

    I think everyone feels lonely once in a while, but I can’t imagine how desolate it would feel to be PERPETUALLY lonely. In a way, I guess I have the reaction, “Well, that is easily something a person can fix…” but perhaps I don’t understand the problem fully enough.

    • Kim January 21, 2011, 11:27 pm

      Aarti: Your response is exactly what I’m wondering about — perhaps being critical of the solutions because I don’t understand the full extent of the problem. White does point out the critiques like that one, and I think does a good job of refuting or pointing out the problems with them.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) January 22, 2011, 9:03 am

    Like other commenters, I like the highlighting of the importance of passive company. It sounds like a book I might check out in the future.

    • Kim January 23, 2011, 2:24 pm

      Christy: I hope you get a chance to read it!

  • S. Krishna January 24, 2011, 1:32 pm

    I read this book back when it came out in hardcover, so I’m really glad it’s getting coverage in the blogosphere in its paperback release. I had a very similar reaction to it.

    • Kim January 24, 2011, 6:27 pm

      S. Krishna: I’m excited that it’s going on a book tour. I hope people will be encouraged to pick it up because it is a really excellent memoir.