The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art Of Being Alone – Olivia Laing

Image Credits: Canongate Books Ltd.

“I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”

I think I have previously expressed the thought that certain books find you at the right time, when reading them takes on a particular significance. This definitely happened in the case of “The Lonely City”; I bought the book in March 2016, a few days after its release, and amidst the various events of the years to come, which were not easy for so many reasons (pandemic included), I forgot about it for a while, partly because I already had a long stack of previously purchased books to read. The book followed me through various house moves and it was only last month that I happened to see it on my shelf and decided to read it.

The Lonely City takes on a completely different meaning in the aftermath of the pandemic, where we have all experienced loneliness on different levels due to forced isolation. It is precisely after the pandemic that the need to escape from loneliness has increased; predominantly taking on a negative connotation, loneliness is fought against in various ways (also thanks to new technologies and social media, which, however, also have dark sides and often make one feel even more lonely), instead of being seen as a natural condition that can be inspiring and allow human beings to develop their talents and personalities. This is precisely what Olivia Laing’s book is about: the British writer recalls her time living in New York, alone in the city that never sleeps; since she was raised by a homosexual mother, Laing’s personal story influences the text, and the author recounts how the visual arts mitigated her loneliness. In her memoir, she analyzes the lives of a number of LGBT artists, especially the ones that were part of New York’s East Village artistic scene. The account of these artists’ lives intersects with the writer’s personal story, focusing on loneliness in the city.

Few have been able to portray urban solitude better than Edward Hopper, and this is particularly evident in his masterpiece Nighthawks, where the sense of separation between each person is deeply felt. Then there is Andy Warhol, with his fears and his need to be surrounded by an entourage (think of his Factory and all the people who were part of his artistic environment). David Woynarowicz’s art and his thoughts reported from his autobiography Close to the Knives, Henry Darger’s vast artistic output and how mental illness, abuse, and loneliness influenced their art. The book not only focuses on the concept of loneliness but also explores other issues, such as the need to abolish discrimination of all kinds and help people who are struggling due to abuse and mental illness. The writing is straightforward and the text flows, fully capturing the reader’s attention; it is very interesting to discover the inner world of these artists, and Olivia Laing does an excellent job of narrating the most relevant aspects of their personalities and their relationship with loneliness, while also bringing much of her personal experience to the page.

This is a book that I recommend particularly to people who have a positive approach toward loneliness, mainly introverts and those who need to spend time alone to recharge their batteries, but also to those who in some ways fear loneliness; by reading “The Lonely City”, they might understand that loneliness is something that should not be stigmatized or seen as something to distance themselves from. It could also help people grow as individuals and have an inner dialogue with themselves.

OTHER BOOKS YOU MAY LIKE: When I think of books similar to The Lonely City, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (which I read the year The Lonely City came out) comes to mind; a memoir that chronicles the writer’s relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge, offering “a first-person account of the joys and complexities of queer family making.” It is interesting how both The Lonely City and The Argonauts won Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Nonfiction and Best Memoir & Autobiography in 2015 and 2016, respectively. By Maggie Nelson I would also like to read Bluets, in which the author explores love and suffering through the color blue. It would be interesting to read some of the books that Olivia Laing cites among her sources, such as John Cacioppo and William Patrick’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

I plan to read Anaïs Nin’s diaries, although I am missing a few to buy. I think it is also worth reading Joan Didion’s entire bibliography because I am sensing similar vibes. In the fiction section I have particularly appreciated J.G. Ballard’s High Rise; the characters live in a large high-rise apartment complex that becomes a class struggle in which people occupy the various floors according to social affiliation, and I think loneliness in this book is palpable. I would also suggest A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, whose protagonists live in New York and deal with themes of loneliness, homosexuality, and trauma due to abuse. I read and deeply loved this novel a few months ago, and you can find my review here.


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