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Going Solo–With the Rest of Society (a book review) February 28, 2012

Posted by Onely in book review.
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Eric Klinenberg. Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. The Penguin Press, 2012.

I began my exploration of the world’s first singleton societies with an eye for their most dangerous and disturbing features, including selfishness, loneliness, reclusiveness, and the horrors of getting sick or dying alone.

A singlist statement like this one would normally make us here at Onely ululate and tear at our hair. However, it’s hard to fault Eric Klinenberg for his honesty or his preconceived notion of solo living. After all, in 2002 he had just written Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, a book about the hundreds of people who died in 1995 when the heat index hovered for days in the low 100s. Most of the victims lived alone. Their tragedies informed the CDC’s list of  risk factors for heat wave victims:

Living alone, not leaving home daily, lacking access to transportation, being sick or bedridden, not having social contacts nearby, and of course not having an air conditioner.

But in Klinenberg’s new book, he discovered that

. . . singletons have helped revitalize the public life of cities, because they are more likely than those who live with others to spend time with friends and neighbors, to frequent bars, cafes, and restaurants, and to participate in informal social activities as well as civic groups. (230)

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone examines and celebrates this relatively new social trend. Klinenberg uses the term “singletons” to mean people who live alone, as opposed to “singles”, who may or may not be socially single (eg. unmarried/unpartnered) and who may or may not live alone. We at Onely like this distinction and will be using “singleton” in the same way henceforth on this blog.

In his engaging text sprinkled with statistics, Klinenberg touts the benefits of living alone, tramples stereotypes about the selfish, rotting singleton, and profiles some of the heavy-hitters in the field of singles’ rights, such as the Alternatives to Marriage Project. Yet despite all the praise of this lifestyle, the book never loses sight of the fact that right now, in our current society, living alone is generally only an option for the very privileged–or the very woebetrodden.

The most important parts of this book (but make no mistake, the entire book is important) are those which acknowledge the latter: the poor, frail, ill, and/or isolated folks who die in heat waves (for example). The goal is not to deride them, or the practice of living alone. In fact, by asking How can we prevent underprivileged singletons from succumbing to the dangers of living alone?, Klinenberg is actually saying, Living alone is such a valuable experience, how can we allow more people to have it safely? Or in his own words:

What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together, we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition? (221)

In Sweden, for example, young women who want a child experience less pressure to hurry up and pair up just for that reason, because they know they have a support system in place including sixteen months of paid parental leave and well-subsidized child support. Klinenberg doesn’t necessarily think the U.S. for example could emulate this, but it does provide a model for thinking outside (and squeezing people into) the couple-box.

Large chunks of the book address the issue of how to make solo living more accessible to all segments of society: Chapter 4: Protecting the Self. Chapter 6: Aging Alone. Chapter 7: Redesigning Solo Life.

“Do you know why so many of us live alone?” a Swedish statistician I interview in the charming Old Town district asks me. He quickly answers his own question: “Because we can.” (216)

The same amenities that make cities green and environmentally sustainable are those that support a community of singletons:

Compact residential units in apartment buildings, not single-family homes. Walkable and densely populated neighborhoods. Proximity to a range of commercial goods and services. . . good public transit. . . (207)

Until this happens, we will continue to have cases like Mary Ann’s – a long-time singleton who died alone – where we don’t know if her isolated death was something she wanted, or not:

Klinenberg shadows Emily, an LA county employee whose job is to find next-of-kin in the cases of unclaimed bodies. This often involves visiting the houses of the newly deceased. Klinenberg and Emily visit the rather ramshackle home of Mary Ann and find very few clues as to who her closest human contacts may have been. Neighbors say she was a nice person and stopped for very short chats. Klinenberg considers this, observes the lonely mess in her house, and concludes,

In most cases, we can’t actually know whether their solitude was a source of sadness, or satisfaction. . . when we hear about someone like Mary Ann, we can’t help but project some of our own feelings into the story. And our reactions say as much about each of us as they do about the deceased.

–Christina and Lisa

P.S. For more reviews of Going Solo, check out these other stops on the virtual book tour:

Tuesday, February 21st: Singularly Happy

Thursday, February 23rd: It’s All About Balance

Monday, February 27th:  Womens Talk

TBD: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
Photo credit: TLC Book Tours


1. Alan - February 28, 2012

I’d point out that not all singles want to live in cities. That’s kind of a stereotype, probably influenced by shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends”

I’m single and I prefer the suburbs. Used to live just adjacent to the city, didn’t like it.

2. Heather J. @ TLC - February 28, 2012

I’m glad you didn’t let Klinenberg’s initial perceptions turn you off from reading the book – sounds like he learned a lot (and can teach a lot) based on his research.

Thanks for being on the tour.

Onely - February 29, 2012

Well I’m not actually sure how serious his initial impression actually was. That quote doesn’t show up until the middle of the book. If I had been him I probably would have had the same reaction after researching all those singletons who died. In fact, maybe it influenced the book’s focus on how to make single living safer.

3. AMT - March 10, 2012

I know that your blog is based upon being/living single, but I couldn’t help but relate this entry to a TED Talk I watched recently on introverts. The part in your review with the quote about the social reformer’s fantasy really reminded me of how Susan Cain talks about introverts living in an extrovert’s world. And a lot of introverts may live alone (I lived alone for 7 years and loved it). Society needs to be more accepting of singles/singletons as well as introverts, because we have a lot to offer!

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