Hell is other people, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre; and this may grant perspective on the news that solitude is in vogue in the United States. “Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single,” writes Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin Press HC, 288 pages, $27.95) “and 31 million—roughly one out of every seven adults—live alone.” Why so lonesome, Americans? A professor of sociology at New York University, Mr. Klinenberg spent years on the trail of typical specimens of contemporary singleness, from rake to recluse to divorcée. Now he has written a book, which reveals that most Americans live alone not because they must but because they would rather. Incidentally, it also suggests that the selfless gene may be recessive. As one interviewee puts it, “I just like that I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s anything.” That attitude is ahead of the curve—but only by a hair. “Our species has about 200,000 years of experience with collective living,” Mr. Klinenberg writes, “[but] only about fifty or sixty years with our experiment in going solo on a massive scale.” We live in the dawn of the first millennium of me time.
In preparing Going Solo, Mr. Klinenberg interviewed hundreds of real-life solo dwellers, whom he calls “singletons.” He even flew to Europe, where he observed “the intensity of Swedish social life.” Nevertheless, he avows in an appendix that his mission to render the average experience of singleness sometimes stymied his instincts as a storyteller: “The cost of [my] approach is that some intriguing personalities, extreme perspectives, and entertaining anecdotes are excluded from your consideration.” Thus, all the kooks and psychos have been left on the cutting room floor. There are no Miss Havishams, no Ted Kaczynskis, and only one guy who is vaguely like Bobby Fischer. “I recite poetry,” admits this interviewee, Guy. “And I drink—the best thing is Canadian vodka.” Then he starts in on the Star of David.
But we don’t meet other guys like Guy. The travesties of solitariness—the comb-overs, the cat fluff—are of little interest to Mr. Klinenberg, who is far keener on its trends. And when it comes to keeping others at bay, overwork is our master alibi. The singletons of our century tend to be too strung out with email to pursue the call of their loins, let alone to get in touch with their feelings. “Relationships are demanding and distracting,” Mr. Klinenberg writes. “They can slow you down or, worse, compromise the quality of your work. What’s more, few of them last. Don’t you owe it to yourself to prioritize work?” If it is true that “contemporary solo dwellers are primarily women,” their hearts are generally neither broken nor throbbing to be bared. And then, as Helen, one of his interviewees, declares, “Marriage is fucking boring.”
So what has the sociologist uncovered? Apparently if you take a freshly uncorked female workforce, toss in a lifespan ripened by modern medicine, swirl them in the shakers of Twitter and Google, then drain the result into the martini glass of a modern city, what you get is a cosmopolitan who does not mix well with roommates. Add the garnish of a famously brisk divorce rate, and there go spouses, too. Just watch out for the spillage—“a new population of marginal men.”
Singletons are not monolithic—neither politicians nor advertisers have devised a means of capturing them en bloc—but their numbers have swollen with the same transformations. “The rise of women, the communications revolution, mass urbanization, and the longevity revolution,” writes Mr. Klinenberg of these phenomena, “created conditions in which the individual could flourish.” Precisely how the individual would flourish was unclear. Going solo first grew widespread in the 1960s, when there were “no historical examples to learn from,” Mr. Klinenberg writes, “no precedents to mimic or avoid.” So the singletons winged it; Mr. Klinenberg counts among their founding influences the mores of places like Greenwich Village and the dictates of people like Hugh Hefner. They were firm about fluid bedtimes, but little else. Mr. Klinenberg repeats Gertrude Stein’s phrase, “life without a father.” Singleness was from the start synonymous with lack of supervision. Perhaps for this reason, “the stigma of living alone is not entirely gone.”
But it has, in latter days, decreased. Singleness, in our era, tends to take the form of an interlude. It is the bit between the family you are born into and the one you form; or it is the bit between your spouses; or it is the bit between your roommates. For many, it is literally a halfway house: addicts in the throes compose a major singleton constituency. To the geriatric, it may be the foyer of the grave; to the young, the antechamber of adulthood. Some consider it “a reward for success.” Whereas for others—for Lou (57, twice-divorced)—“the fact that I have been alone for so long is probably the biggest failure in my life.” Singleness can be a short stretch or a long haul, or a hole through which your prime years hemorrhage. It rots or renews.
Regardless, singletons recoil from claims made on their time, almost categorically. Their lives are scheduled. They are ticket-buyers and event-attenders, gym-users, “‘crack-berry’ junkies.” They prefer the selective intimacies of friendship to the aimless closeness of the couple. Their lives are compartmentalized. They have support networks for support, drinking buddies for drinks, gossips for gossip; but they do not support friendly gossips while drinking with them. Yes, their lives are tidy—unless they are so chaotic “you can’t even walk on the ground because it’s packed with stuff.”
Their sex lives are unenviable, mixing long spans of sexless solitariness with the occasional bout of loveless sex. For singletons are old hands of the chaste night in. But even when they get out, they tend to get by with a minimum of chivalry. Male singletons masturbate twice as frequently as boyfriends or husbands. Women, however, irrespective of relationship status, admit to an identical masturbatory habit: 7 percent do it once or more a week—wives, sweethearts, spinsters, all. Singletons of both sexes, inevitably, have less sex than the spoken for, with females being the particular paupers: “77 percent of unmarried divorced women,” for instance, “[say] they [have] not had sex” in six months. Yet the sexual plusses of singledom are nontrivial, if not quite tangible. “Some would surely prefer to have less sex with more partners than more sex with the same partner,” Mr. Klinenberg allows. Perhaps scarcity brings clarity. Singletons can be fortifyingly illusion-free about love. “She broke things off when [Victor’s] health began to fail,” writes Mr. Klinenberg of Eva, a “remarkably fit” septuagenarian widow—“not to be heartless, but because she didn’t want to become his caretaker as things spiraled downward.”
Mr. Klinenberg struck on the concept for Going Solo while researching his first book, an account of the ravaging of Chicago by the heat wave of July 1995. Within a week, 700 people had died—many of them, Mr. Klinenberg would soon realize, members of “a secret society of people who live and die alone,” for which “the heat wave was a morbid birth announcement.” It occurred to Mr. Klinenberg that it might just be an American thing. After all, the bosom of individualism could not exist without an underbelly. “It’s tempting to treat the soaring rates of living alone as a peculiar American condition,” Mr. Klinenberg writes, “an expression of what the literary critic Harold Bloom called the nation’s ‘religion of self-reliance.’” But the Bloomian eloquence is not predictive. In fact, Sweden “contains the greatest proportion of people who live alone,” trailed by “Norway, Finland, and Denmark.”
Another surprise is that Mr. Klinenberg doesn’t see singletons as a plague. He is out to explain the phenomenon—but also to defend it from an abundant literature of alarm. Mr. Klinenberg catalogues its touchstones: “The Lonely Crowd, The Pursuit of Loneliness, The Fall of Public Man, The Culture of Narcissism”—and of course, “Bowling Alone.” “The cultural critics and political officials who worry about the rise of living alone,” he writes, “don’t acknowledge that living alone is an individual choice that’s as valid as the choice to get married or live with a domestic partner.”
Mr. Klinenberg could have thought harder about his prose style. He prefers the edgeless diction of the nonpartisan report, with its reliance on woolly qualifiers like “valid” and “creative,” and he plumbs for clichés whenever they are available. A disaster is “unmitigated,” a lawn is “verdant,” a voice is “full of sadness and resignation.” And, of course, every variation of obviousness is “no surprise.” He also has a weakness for booming truisms. “But alas,” he writes, “our most astounding accomplishments are all too often the sources of our most difficult challenges.”
Yet for all that, Going Solo is invigoratingly open-minded. Even as he bows to clichés of expression, Mr. Klinenberg avoids a larger cliché of skepticism. It is a relief to read a work of nonfiction that doesn’t presuppose the superior virtuousness of “the family.” The planetary increase in Me Time does not have to be an omen of the End Times. Mr. Klinenberg advises us to “accept the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies,” and even sees in it the outlines of a retort to the encroachments on our inner lives by this age of overconnectedness. “There’s such a thing as too much togetherness,” says Madeline, an elderly San Franciscan. It is to his credit as an intellectual that Mr. Klinenberg, a husband and father, can sympathize.