Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White chronicles White’s own battle with loneliness in her mid-thirties and provides an extensive overview of current research on loneliness, including interviews White conducted with lonely people who contacted her through her blog. Lonely is a portrait of loneliness written by someone who has experienced chronic loneliness, but it’s not a straight memoir, nor is it about “learning to live with solitude.”*
I initially found myself having a strong negative reaction to White’s personal story. In chapter 1 (called “Premonition”), White recounts how she reread the diaries she wrote at 19 in which she predicted “a life lived at a distance from everyone else” for herself (p. 17). She offers this as evidence of some sort of uncanny ability on the part of her younger self to see into the future, “as though . . . a sort of chronological porthole opened up, and I was able to catch glimpses of what my future would hold” (pp. 17-18). Her conclusion irritated me: surely it was obvious that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy! Her dismissal of yoga classes and meditation retreats as “time alone . . . commodified into something that can be bought” (p. 55) also raised my hackles. I confess I found myself feeling judgemental and impatient—and this despite the fact that I have some experience with chronic loneliness myself.
However, when White starts to investigate loneliness in an attempt to come to grips with what’s happening to her, my feelings about this book shifted and I started to feel more compassion for her story. White makes a convincing case for the fact that under the “right” circumstances anyone can become lonely, that the stereotype we have of the lonely as needy and desperate and unattractive (or worse, dangerous) is in fact not founded on reality, that loneliness is something quite different from depression and that it deserves to be studied and treated in its own right.
Although White spends a chapter defining and discussing the terms associated with loneliness, her focus is very much on loneliness as a result of isolation (which is what she experienced) and not so much on loneliness that results from not feeling connected even when you are with people (which is more the type of loneliness I’ve experienced). In addition, although she is an introvert, she barely mentions the possibility that introverts and extroverts might have different experiences of loneliness. As an introvert, my relationship to solitude/loneliness feels complicated: on the one hand, like everyone else, I need to connect with people, but on the other hand, I also need time alone—and certain types of social interactions generally don’t work for me. I would venture to guess that, at least some of the time, I feel lonely when I’m with people because I’m in a not-introvert-friendly situation. But White doesn’t seem to make that distinction: for example, her story of going on a bike trip in the hope of becoming “gregarious, embedded, fearless” (p. 159) sounds like a nightmare to an introvert—it’s no wonder the trip was a disaster. White, however, attributes the failure of this strategy solely to her loneliness, and not to introversion. More than once, it seemed to me that her discussion of loneliness could have been informed and enriched by looking at it through the lens of introversion/extroversion.
So much of the research White examines was interesting and thought-provoking and sometimes scary—I wished I had someone to discuss it with right away, especially as I wasn’t always sure I agreed with White’s conclusions. Despite the issues I had with Lonely, it makes for fascinating reading and is certainly an important book: if you have any interest at all in loneliness, I recommend reading it.
Thank you to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.
*The book’s original title was Lonely: A Memoir—unfortunately, neither of the subtitles is very accurate.
Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude was on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in January and February. Visit these other blogs for reviews:
The House of the Seven Tails • Sophisticated Dorkiness • Silver & Grace • BookNAround • Confessions of a Bookaholic • Lisa’s Yarns • In the Next Room • Sara’s Organized Chaos • A Certain Bent Appeal
BookPage • Bust Magazine (spoiler alert!) • S. Krishna’s Books
Guest post: In the Next Room