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Important work, but very unbalanced
on April 5, 2012
Eric Klinenberg has written an important work that has many useful facts about those of us who choose to live alone, but he has missed at least half of the picture by ignoring two very important things: those of us who identify as introverts (those who prefer their own company and derive a sense of reality from within rather than without), and the majority of elderly people who are not down and out, living in NYC, and who are having a great time living in retirement communities and on their own.
With regard to introverts, it is striking that Klinenberg does not even refer to Anneli Rufus and her book 'Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto'. This is a must-read for anyone writing about living alone. Klinenberg's bias towards extroverts and those who need interaction with others in order to maintain their mental health shows over and over again, especially in his writing about elderly people. For many people, reaching middle age and beyond is a wonderful time when at long last we no longer have to be around other people all the time and can enjoy that solitude we have been craving for decades. Those of us who are true introverts never need to worry about "filling empty hours" - it's unthinkable. We've spent our lives waiting for a time when we actually have more time to devote to the hundreds of things we've never had a chance to do because we had to spend so much of our time working. Klinenberg's cautionary tales about becoming ill are worth reading, especially in a country with such a horrific health care system, but he focuses solely on the really sad, horrible tales, mostly limiting his discussion to NYC.
Meanwhile, out in what Stephen Colbert would call "the heartland," there are millions of elderly people who are not wasting away alone in some SRO or nursing home, but who are instead enjoying an excellent quality of life, living independently in apartments and cottages that are part of retirement communities that provide round-the-clock health care when needed. My mother has lived in such a community very independently for the past 20 years and she loves it (she will be 90 this year). She and my father were not wealthy (they were educators), but they saved up their money, made some sensible investment decisions, sold their house and moved to a retirement community in their 70s when they were both still healthy. Today my mother is very active, goes out, attends cultural events, volunteers, has dozens of friends, gets excellent medical care, usually eats one meal a day with friends in the central dining room, and can still cook for herself. Having gotten to know her friends and a host of other elderly people living in nearby retirement communities, this is a common tale, not an exception. There are many such places dotted across the US, and although some of them are prohibitively expensive - and not worth the cost - most are just as affordable as living in an apartment complex.
So don't let Klinenberg's book scare you. It's a very incomplete work written by a clearly biased individual. Yes, it's important to get the word out that living alone is becoming increasingly popular, so he deserves praise for doing that. However, this change in living styles is a cause for great celebration, in my opinion. At last we can live the way we want to rather than putting up with the old models of marriage, family, kids, ad nauseum! Notice how difficult it is, even for an 'objective sociologist' to put a positive spin on this revolutionary change? For those of us who have lived alone for years and love it, the appeal is not 'surprising' at all.