All, Alone: Eric Klinenberg Examines the Rise in Single Living in Going Solo

Singletons’ schedules are packed, their sex lives unenviable

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.

All, Alone: Eric Klinenberg Examines the Rise in Single Living in Going Solo