The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For a lot of people, 2020 was a year of loneliness. More people than ever before felt the pangs of isolation, the pain of being separated from other people and struggling to make connections. Which is partly why it was poignant and fascinating for me to read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing as 2020 was winding down.

This book does (or tries to do) a lot of things. On the one hand, Laing is telling the story of her own time spent both alone and lonely in New York City after the failure of a relationship. On the other hand, she’s telling the stories of several great artists who did their work in the midst of or in response to loneliness. And on yet another hand, she’s telling the story of what loneliness is, how it works, the studies that have been done about it, and how we can and ought to live in it. However, despite how disparate the different threads are, they braid together into a thoughtful and moving examination of a universal human experience.

Where a strictly self-help style book about living through loneliness might begin to seem preachy or subjective, where a memoir might sink into self-pity and lots of personal details, and where an art biography might seem dry or academic or esoteric, this book slipped neatly in and out of these perspectives, avoiding pitfalls and using the juxtaposition of different elements to underscore important points. The author’s message  is essentially this: all people experience loneliness, when they become emotionally and/or physically separated from the society around them. Loneliness, being essentially desperation for intimacy and human contact, makes its victim socially clumsy, overly sensitive to rejection, and defensive – all of which conspires to keep the person isolated. She urges us to build a more compassionate society that strives to include and reach out to those prone to being pushed to the outskirts.

I liked this book not only for the resonant unpacking of loneliness as a phenomenon, but also for the detailed and thoughtful descriptions of artists’ lives and works. I’m not much of an art connoisseur, so hearing background details about artists, alongside a discerning examination of their work and what it means, really helped me grasp the concepts. By using artists to explore loneliness, moreover, Laing suggests that creativity, imagination, and self-expression are powerful weapons that can be used in and against isolation. Essentially, I came away from this book with a feeling of profound hope. If you’re looking to take a deep dive into art, loneliness, and social isolation, I recommend this book – but be warned, it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. Most of the artists she describes came to artistic self-expression by living through incredible, heart-breaking hardships that demanded to be put into words.

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