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This Book Will Change Our Lives

The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone

There are three interrelated trends that are reshaping our personal lives and our society, and all three have been developing for decades:

  • The rise in the number and proportion of people who are single (always-single, divorced, or widowed);
  • The increasing number of years that adults spend unmarried rather than married, with the unmarried years now outnumbering the married ones; and
  • The increase in the number of people living solo.

The last of those three is the topic of a book so important that it is likely to become both a popular read and a social science classic. It is Eric Klinenberg's just-published Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

Does the title of this post sound like hype? I meant it seriously. This book really will change the lives of people who live solo, and everyone else. At least it should. The main thing standing in the way of an explosion of attention and impact is that the claims are not sensationalized. More people are living solo than ever before in human history. That's just a fact. If Klinenberg had tried to persuade us that, as a consequence of this rise in living alone, America was becoming a nation of isolated, lonely people, and that our civic and community life was in a long period of decline - well, then he would have an instant best-seller, hands-down! In fact, as he notes, the best-selling sociology books in the history of the United States have peddled just such dire messages.

If you wanted to see the rise of solo living as a bad, bad thing, you could comb through Going Solo, pluck a few choice excerpts, and make your case. Similarly, if you wanted to declare that living solo is an unmitigated personal and interpersonal good, you could find some quotes that would seem supportive. What you cannot do, if you really do read the entire book, is come away with anything but a deep and complex understanding of what it means to live alone. It can be exhilarating or depressing or both. It can be awesome for some and awful for others.

I don't know the author (though I did talk to him on the phone when he was researching the book), but I did know his previous work. I have to admit that I was a bit wary when I first learned that he was writing a book on solo living. That's because one of his previous books, Heat Wave, was about the hundreds of Chicagoans who died alone, at home, during the 1995 heat wave. Would Going Solo be the sociological version of Bridget Jones's fear about ultimate fate of people who live single - that they would all "end up dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian"? Not hardly.

Eric Klinenberg does tell us about the worst cases - people who really do die alone, and whose bodies remain unclaimed by any other humans. Yet even then, he does not presume to judge: "...when truly isolated people die alone...we can't actually know whether their solitude was a source of sadness, or satisfaction" (p. 128).

I have so much more to say about this book. I'll save those discussions for future posts. (Already available is my list of the top 12 things you probably did not know about living solo.) For now, I'll end by returning to the title of this post.

So why will Going Solo change our lives? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • The book puts solo living on the map, as a pervasive and consequential feature of contemporary life, not just in the United States, but far beyond. It establishes going solo as a way of living not likely to recede anytime soon.
  • The research and the arguments are thorough, balanced, and persuasive. The work is based on more than 300 interviews, collected nationally and internationally, over a 7-year period. The author is an esteemed sociologist, who positions his findings in historical and cross-cultural context.
  • Eric Klinenberg explains, for many big important domains of life, why the increase in solo living matters: "The rise of living alone has been a transformative social experience. It changes the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships. It shapes the way we build our cities and develop our economies. It alters the way we become adults, as well as how we age and the way we die. It touches every social group and nearly every family, no matter who we are or whether we live with others today" (p. 6).
  • Perhaps most significant, in terms of actually making change happen, is that Going Solo builds up to a final chapter, "Redesigning solo life." There, Klinenberg shares his insights about what societies can do to support and enrich the lives not only of those people who are living alone, but also those who care about the singletons, or who may find themselves living solo in the future.

[NOTE: Several readers have been emailing me to ask whether I have ever written about particular topics. I have collected posts about various themes, such as economic issues, workplace issues, single life at different ages, and much more at the post, Where's that blog post I remember reading? Also, I'm still way behind on my emails. If you have contacted me and not heard back, I'm not ignoring you. But feel free to email again, to nudge me along.]

[UPDATE: Tasty myth-busting from the new Going Solo book was just posted at All Things Single (and More). Also check out the feeds at Single with Attitude for other reviews and discussions from enlightened singles bloggers.]

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