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Solo living book 'Going Solo' challenges ideas about family life

Posted: February 9, 2012 - 1:03am

“Going Solo” (The Penguin Press), by Eric Klinenberg: Living in families, though traditional and almost universal on this evolving planet, is experiencing an unplanned but effective attack, according to a new book.

Author Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, sees lessons to be learned. He sums them up in his subtitle: “The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”

What good is living alone? Isolate yourself from all your friends? No wife? No husband? No mother? And all that laundry to do? Babies? Maybe, later.

Henry David Thoreau tried it in the mid-1800s, when he was still in his twenties. The result was “Walden,” a book about living alone in the woods — a high point in American literature.

“I never found the companion so companionable as solitude,” he wrote.

One of four siblings himself, he died unmarried, at 44. Biographers record one proposal — rejected — to a young woman.

He built his cottage within walking distance of his family in Concord, Mass., and the pubs he and his friends frequented. It was on property of his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of whose best known works is an essay called “Self-Reliance.”

Thoreau’s mother visited often, bearing home-cooked meals.

In 1950, about 4 million Americans were living solo. A half-century later, the number had risen to 31 million, with women outnumbering men 17 million to 14 million — figures that have had little public attention.

Between those two dates another book appeared that may become a sort of landmark: Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl.” Klinenberg quotes her on the new young woman:

“She is engaging because she lives by her wits. She is not a parasite, a dependent, a scrounger, a sponger or a bum. She is a giver, not a taker, a winner and not a loser.”

Klinenberg also collects interviews with older people who choose independent living rather than available alternatives as long as they can, though their stories are necessarily sadder than those of young people.

Most Americans, Europeans and rising numbers elsewhere, he argues, measure satisfaction with life in terms of independence, integrity and self-respect.

“Our cultural preference for living autonomously is a key reason why today more than 11 million elderly Americans and 72 million Europeans live alone,” he writes, “and why in the coming decades many millions more will do so.”

Though the short book is largely concerned with the United States, it devotes 10 vivid pages to solutions innovated in Sweden. Back in the 1930s social planner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Alva Myrdal opened a “collective house.” It had 57 units for single women and single mothers, with a communal kitchen, a nursery and small elevator service to each unit for meal deliveries.

“Solitude, once we learn how to use it, does more than restore our personal energy,” Klinenberg concludes, “it also sparks new ideas about how we might better live together.”

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