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The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016)

by Olivia Laing

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6382125,982 (3.93)24
"You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by thousands of strangers. The Lonely City is a roving cultural history of urban loneliness, centered on the ultimate city: Manhattan, that teeming island of gneiss, concrete, and glass. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we're not intimately involved with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if our sexuality or physical body is considered deviant or damaged? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens? Olivia Laing explores these questions by travelling deep into the work and lives of some of the century's most original artists, among them Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger and Klaus Nomi. Part memoir, part biography, part dazzling work of cultural criticism, The Lonely City is not just a map, but a celebration of the state of loneliness. It's a voyage out to a strange and sometimes lovely island, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but visited by many - millions, say - of souls"--… (more)
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» See also 24 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
I sincerely wanted to like this book more than I did. The author proposes to explore the depths of loneliness, but she only did to an extent. For most of the book, she uses loneliness as a segue into biographies of New York City artists. While some of those stories are interesting (especially the story of Henry Darger), these narratives didn't shed that much light back on the book's theme. Yes, they were people influenced by loneliness, but not in a way that took me deeply into it. ( )
  mitchtroutman | Jun 14, 2020 |
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is an investigation of loneliness in a city of eight and a half million people. Laing is a columnist for frieze and write for the Guardian, New Statesman, Observer, and New York Times. Her previous books are To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring

The Lonely City opens with a discussion of loneliness and the idea that you can be lonely anywhere but there is a special sense of loneliness when one is surrounded by millions of people in an urban environment. Laing then examines different artists lives and their struggle with loneliness. Perhaps the idea of being lonely in NYC is magnified greatly when you are famous. Laing describes the what it was like for someone like Andy Warhol to be surrounded by people and ultimately remain lonely. David Wojnarowicz and AIDS, Billie Holiday and "Strange Fruit", Henry Darger and being a recluse, Klaus Sperber and AIDS and general eccentricness, and, of course, the internet (and technology) creating millions of friends you do not know.

The chapter that really reached out and grabbed me, though, was the one on Edward Hopper. The name may not ring a bell at first but his painting of a diner scene is known by all.



The couple who are together but alone a single customer and a single worker. The streets are empty and the sense is one of profound loneliness and perhaps being trapped in the dim drab that surrounds the scene. Notice there is no door to the diner. Looking through Hopper’s other paintings there are people alone in their environment or even when they have another human being in the scene there is an awkward tension, almost trying to regain privacy. Loneliness is a feeling and like most feelings are hard, if not impossible to describe with words. A look at any number of Hopper’s paintings and one will see what loneliness is and relate to that feeling.

I read this book on a flight to California, crammed in a middle seat of a fully booked 737 and it was a fitting book for the flight. Crammed in a mass of humanity, not knowing anyone, and perhaps just as importantly not wanting to know the two people invading my personal space. I dove into my Kindle. The man on my left watched a movie on his tablet and the man on my right kept opening and closing a book grumbling about wanting a cigarette. A very good read about social interaction and the avoidance of it. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
I loved this meditation on art and loneliness. It struck a chord, it reminded me of my recent trip to New York, it taught me things about various artists. It's thoughtful and emotional, and manages to be wide ranging whilst staying focused on a narrow topic. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Oct 28, 2019 |
This was well-written but ultimately uninteresting. I managed 3/4 of the book before I gave it up. I was expecting more on loneliness than biographies on people who had been lonely and made art because of it. ( )
  carliwi | Sep 23, 2019 |
In her mid-30s, Olivia Laing moved from England to New York to live with a new boyfriend. The relationship didn't work out, and she found herself stranded on her own in an unfamiliar city, dealing with an almost crippling lack of daily human interaction.

Having spent sizeable chunks of my own life being lonely in unfamiliar cities, I immediately liked the idea as well as the melancholy tone of this book. Laing has all kinds of interesting insights to offer on how loneliness manifests itself – but it should be noted that while The Lonely City presents itself as a memoir of this time in her life, under the hood it's really a book of art criticism, examining the life and work of visual artists (mostly) who addressed loneliness as a subject.

Her main case studies are Hopper, Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger and Klaus Nomi, some of whom I had never heard of, but all of whose work emerges in this study as full of the pain and the hypersensitivity of loneliness – infused with (in a phrase she uses about Hopper) ‘an erotics of insufficient intimacy’. Unfortunately it is necessary for the reader to put these references together for themselves, as the book itself is critically short of illustrations.

I loved the memoir bits and thought the criticism bits were only OK, which meant I found the book as a whole a little uneven, though often fascinating. Although Laing has a load of interesting things to say about the artists she discusses, I couldn't shake off the feeling that they sometimes appeared to act as a cover, or safety net, for when talking about herself became too difficult. Tracing Wojnarowicz's nocturnal excursions into the New York gay scene of the 1980s, for instance, leads Laing to a moody consideration of her own sexuality – her sense that she is ‘in the wrong place, in the wrong body, in the wrong life’ – in terms that are first allusive, and finally more direct:

I'd never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both. Trans, I was starting to realise, which isn't to say I was transitioning from one thing to another, but rather that I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn't exist, except there I was.

The narrative really comes alive at these points; but it isn't long before Laing ducks back behind another artist again and retreats, if that's not an unfair word, into more analytic criticism. And again – the criticism was interesting! – I just felt that the art and the memoir got in each other's way as often as they reinforced each other. Which was a shame, because I found her really excellent when concentrating on the life writing – on, for instance, the way loneliness has been mediated, yet in some ways worsened, by the modern online world – especially when it comes to the contradictory impulses that drove her on social media:

I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my anonymity, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I'd almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.

Laing's neat summary of the internet – ‘what seemed transient was actually permanent, and what seemed free had already been bought’ – is perhaps a clue to the appeal of the artists she focuses on, who were either far outside any corporate influence or, like Warhol, were making commodification the whole point of their work. Seeing these lonely artists through Laing's gaze is enlightening – but the links and segues are so good that I spent much of the book pining for a straight-up memoir. ( )
1 vote Widsith | May 9, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
This daring and seductive book — ostensibly about four artists, but actually about the universal struggle to be known — raises sophisticated questions about the experience of loneliness, a state that in a crowded city provides an “uneasy combination of separation and exposure.”
added by pbirch01 | editNew York Times, Ada Calhoun (Mar 19, 2016)
 
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'and every one members one of another'

Romans 12:5
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If you're lonely,
this one's for you
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Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventh or forty-third floor of a building.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by thousands of strangers. The Lonely City is a roving cultural history of urban loneliness, centered on the ultimate city: Manhattan, that teeming island of gneiss, concrete, and glass. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we're not intimately involved with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if our sexuality or physical body is considered deviant or damaged? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens? Olivia Laing explores these questions by travelling deep into the work and lives of some of the century's most original artists, among them Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger and Klaus Nomi. Part memoir, part biography, part dazzling work of cultural criticism, The Lonely City is not just a map, but a celebration of the state of loneliness. It's a voyage out to a strange and sometimes lovely island, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but visited by many - millions, say - of souls"--

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