- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (Jan. 4 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0771088787
- ISBN-13: 978-0771088780
- Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 2.4 x 20.5 cm
- Shipping Weight: 340 g
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #263,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude Paperback – Jan 4 2011
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Quill & Quire
In recent years, the memoir has shifted from the tell-all to the personal essay, and from there it has branched out into various forms of creative non-fiction: often beautiful me-centered takes on some aspect of the human condition that engage and instruct simultaneously. Emily White’s first book falls into this category. While Lonely’s narrative sticks pretty closely to the trajectory of White’s personal journey, the book also draws on a wide range of research – from neuropsychology to social studies – in an attempt to bring a well-known yet frequently unacknowledged human experience out of the shadows.
White was born almost a decade later than her two sisters, and four years before her parents divorced. Although well-loved and cared for, much of her childhood was characterized by loneliness. However, the true depth of her isolation did not manifest itself until after she graduated from the University of Toronto law school (where she was happiest, surrounded by friends and kept busy) and started work as an environmental lawyer. A cluster of small factors in her life stirred up feelings of exclusion that worsened as the years went on. This extended period of chronic loneliness inspired her to research and write Lonely.
White corrects many widely held misconceptions about loneliness and the people who find themselves gripped by it. She points out that lonely people are not “needy” and thus somehow impaired.
Unfortunately, as White attests, there are almost no ongoing scientific studies of loneliness, in sharp contrast to its media-friendly cousin, depression. Of the limited work that is being done on the subject, social neuroscientist John Cacioppo dominates the field. He points out that the experience of feeling socially isolated is not just sad, it’s dangerous. Dangerous because, from an evolutionary perspective, humans are social animals, and we need other people to survive – literally.
Although the condition is on the rise in our increasingly fragmented and migratory society, loneliness continues to be a source of shame. Perhaps White’s bravery in exposing her own heart and soul, and her skill in integrating these experiences with expert findings, will bring loneliness out of the shadows and into the light of public discourse at last.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Kudos to Emily White for having written that rare book which feels both necessary and evolutionary. Lonely is a masterwork on the topic, a memoir of deep insight and revelation.” (Alice Sebold)
“[A] sophisticated inquiry...The power of White’s story comes from the sweeping investment she has made in tracking and tackling her loneliness. White makes the case that loneliness deserves attention and respect as a legitimate condition.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“[A]n impassioned call to arms on behalf of a condition no one wants to talk about.” (Jezebel.com) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
The title of my review has to do with the pendulum that was swinging back and forth as I was reading 'Lonely'...and continues to swing even now, after I've completed it. Love it...frustrated by it...respected the Hell out of the accomplishment...stunned by the amount of fuzzy logic and faffing about that unfolds with its 300+ pages...admired her tenacity...wanted to smack her on the wrist...
But before I get to the meat of the matter, allow me to give a brief bit of personal background, so as to explain why I'm as strident as I am in my thoughts. I've dealt with both depression and 'loneliness' for probably 80% of my time here on Earth this go-round, and have spent roughly three-quarters of my adult life *alone*, all the while really wanting nothing more than to be coupled and building a life with someone, while having solid, fortifying friendships.
While neither of my mood disorders have informed my existence in the way that Ms White's seem to have hers, I still know a little about them in general. Additionally, I've spent more than the usual amount of time researching them, as well as regularly counselling people I've come in contact with and developed relationships with, going back to a close friend when I was a teenager, who had begun to use depression like a weapon...or at least a stick to socially bludgeon with. So I've been looking at this book not just as a reader, but as someone who has lived what she's addressing here. (But both parts of me stuck over a hundred Post-it notes on the pages; there didn't seem to be an end of points I was at odds with, or in complete agreement with. More on this shortly.)
Unfortunately, the frustration I felt at reading this book began with the ever-shifting, ever-migrating, ever-amorphous definitions applied to being 'lonely', to 'loneliness', and worst of all, the conflation of these with being 'alone'. In the end -and it was pretty much near the end of the book- a salient definition is proposed (from an external source)...but it's something that should have been at the very beginning of the book. You cannot discuss a subject unless you define the subject's parameters. For example, 'Hunger'. As in...personal hunger, as in bad crop planning, as in malnutrition, as in deprivation, as poverty, as in empty-calories...?
By the end of the book, I believe I'd decided one thing: that the references she had used needed to be scrapped. Because she was all over the map, and this ambiguity-combined-with-an-all-inclusive approach lessened by a large degree the cachet of Ms White's offering. Some of the inferences were wholly arbitrary (yet still held water), while others seemed like they'd been sprinkled with some kind of 'fuzzy' dust, which was tossed in the air during an incantation of self-indulgence (and sprung massive leaks). I was not impressed...and clamouring all the more for for consistency...and cogency. I have no faith in the idea that 'loneliness' could or even should be considered for candidacy as the appropriate phraseology for the malady...but then this book has made me feel like nothing at all is possible, it's sucked the life out of me...and for all the wrong reasons.
Often when she's discussing 'loneliness', she's really referring to the causation elements that leave the person in a state traditionally referred to as 'lonely' or as having 'loneliness' be the limiting factor in their life. I maintain that it can't be both. To me, 'loneliness' can be described as 'when someone is by themselves, the emptiness, the barrenness, the longing for human contact and connection that results from an absence of the same'. Now, the reasons for them being unable to address these feelings, these are connected to loneliness, they may bring about loneliness, they may prevent a person from addressing their loneliness...but they aren't 'loneliness'. By the same token, someone who is, for the sake of discussion, at a party, surrounded by people (or, in the case of Ms. White, participating in a basketball league), and yet still feels 'lonely', or 'alone', is not, by my way of thinking, suffering from 'loneliness'. Not in the common parlance. They're suffering from bad wiring, from a dearth of skills that allows them to process socializing in a positive way, or perhaps 'avoidant personality disorder'. You may think me as being difficult (a 'prick', perhaps?) in making this distinction, but I'm a stickler for clarity, and I found that this consistent muddying of the waters, on the one hand the common perception of what a person who's 'lonely' is going through or how that person's 'loneliness' could be described, and on the other, the possible causes or reasons or motivating factors that have brought on (and continue to bring on) that person's state got to be annoying.
I'm adamant about this for two reasons (other than the lack of clarity involved.) The first is that I believe that because 'loneliness' needs to be recognized on a societal level in order for it to be properly addressed, it's vital that we have a label that works. (Reading this book, my gut reaction was that 'lonely', 'loneliness' and 'being alone' don't, not in the context of how Ms. White has presented what she's presented.) The second is that most often than not, when she was relating how a reader/contributor described themselves, their habits, the way they saw themselves and their disorder, I would shake my head and say out loud 'Nope.' Or 'Uh-uh.' Or 'Not me.' Now, I know I suffer from 'loneliness'. From being 'lonely'. From 'being alone'. I know the difference between the array of emotions attached to those labels and those attached to depression, the 'black dogs', the crushing weight of nihilism. I'm not taking issue with what her contributors were relating...just that the terms being used weren't appropriate, that some other phraseology could be better applied.
Which takes me to the issue of how this book has been positioned. In the title, we have an entirely different framing of the subject; in Canada, it's subtitled 'Learning to Live With Solitude', a personal story-cum-sortakinda investigation, and in the US and UK, it's subtitled 'A Memoir'. My reaction to her muddling the two approaches (I'm not saying it can't be done...it just wasn't done well here. Maybe this had to do with the fact that 'loneliness' has not been 'officially' recognized, so here was a third front she was trying to fight contemperaneously) came in the form of additional dollops of frustration, while furiously scribbling more Post-its.
The odd thing was that in the past, when I've read a 'memoir' dealing with some kind of ailment or struggle, the person's story has been the spine on which the book has been grown. Ms White's story, this book's 'spine', wasn't the stuff on which to cultivate much. Certainly not the stuff of perhaps the most harmful aspect of modern society's 'ailments of isolation'. So this too, perturbed me, because she's a wonderful writer. Engaging, supremely intelligent, quite empathetic...and yet the personal stuff (remember, as the book's 'spine') was pretty 'Meh.' Oh, and consider this: her 'salvation' comes when she enters into a fully-committed, seemingly connective relationship. So this means that for her...the cure for 'loneliness' was being coupled?!? Um... Going back to 'hunger', does this mean its cure would be 'eating'? (Yes, I got that she was still having to deal with 'loneliness' to some degree, but the way this dénouement was presented left a bad taste in my mouth.
Lastly, while I'm on a roll regarding the general cred of the book...the issue of her coming out. We finally find out about her being gay on page 179. But it's really not integrated into the tale until page 309, just over twenty pages from the end of the book. Excuse my French, but 'WTF?!?'
If Ms White believes that the issue of her not having come out had nothing to do with her travails with 'loneliness', or, at the very least didn't inform her chronic phase, that it wasn't relevant, not even relevant in the sense of telling the reader along the way so that they'd have a better perspective of her personal journey...then I'd be curious as to where she'd draw the line with such a revelation. To me it's a little too reminiscent of my dad not believing that growing without his father (the family essentially abandoned when he was six months old) had any sort of deleterious effect on his upbringing and eventual personal development. It is, in a word, preposterous. It torpedoes her cachet...never mind saying some pretty damning things about the editorial oversight that went into the book. Yeah, I know; harsh. But I feel somehow screwed-over by much of the way Ms White has presented the work she's done, and this ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.
As I've mentioned that Post-its were a huge part of my reading of this book, here's a sampling of what I wrote the scads I went through, just to further illustrate my 'pendulumming':
For someone striving to get something taken seriously, she's surprisingly flippant towards other people's takes on the subject; Habitual, defensive sarcasm; Cynical fatalism; Yup; This is good stuff; OK; now THIS is profound; ...or their wiring is simply...OFF; I would NOT describe this as 'loneliness'. This is intimacy dysfunctionality; Again, what does this have to do with 'loneliness'?; Both these paragraphs are NOT 'loneliness'; WHINERS!; No effing kidding!;
And my favourite, at the second paragraph on p.297: What an incredibly JUICY rationalization! Jeff Goldblum's character in 'The Big Chill' would have been proud.
At some point, I got fed up with all the faffing about the book is rife with, and scribbled down this analogy:
'Social anxiety disorder' is to 'Loneliness' as 'Fear of Heights' is to 'Desperately Longing to Rock-climb.'
Despite everything I've listed here in this review as having vexed me, it's still a solid contribution to the cause. The separation of 'situational' and 'chronic' and 'trait' and 'behavioural', her solid delivery of why 'the lonely' have a difficult time transitioning to 'non-lonely' lifestyles, her investigation into the cost 'loneliness' has had on society, is having and is projected to have down the road, were excellent.
What could have made it better, besides a proper reference term?
-Profiles of readers/contributors that presented a more regulated snapshot, so we could more readily see the variances in behaviour...as well as the commonalities.
-A more focused appreciation of what needs to be addressed with 'the lonely' (and also how this varies wildly)
-Her own story better told, more honestly told (even if there wasn't much of one). This was the greatest disappointment for me, considering that I sense she's got enormous potential as a fiction writer; she has a lovely command of the English language without it being her major tool, she's receptive to the nuances of the human condition...and clearly, she has things she wants to say. (She's got some 'oomph' going on.)
-The admission that as with any continuum, some of those dealing with 'loneliness' will require a spectrum of help, while others might just need to be in a fully-functional relationship. (Just as some of those who are 'hungry' might just need to learn how to feed themselves, and some of those who are 'depressed' might just need to learn new and better Life skills.)
And of course, as I've been finishing off this review, I'm very mindful of the fact that the pendulum just keeps on swingin'...
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