Loneliness and Solitude: A Reading List
by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Longreads
When I moved from a small town in Northern California to Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2010, I felt the pang of an inarticulable loneliness. Unable to string together words to describe this complicated feeling, I found Olivia Laing’s Aeon essay, “Me, Myself and I,” to be a starting point that began to map a cartography of loneliness. Published in 2012, Laing writes, “What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal.” Four years into my New York experiment, the pang of loneliness has dulled and has been exchanged for a desire to retreat from an overstimulating city with my close friends and a bag of salted caramel.
This brief list takes a dive into the discussion about loneliness and solitude in our contemporary lives—what it is, how we cope, and how it affects our bodies. Please share your recommendations: essays and articles in this vein, if you have them.
1. “American Loneliness” (Emma Healey, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 2014)
I’ve been watching MTV’s reality show, Catfish in awe for the past two seasons. I vacillate between heavy feelings of eager empathy and awkward amusement. Healy explores what Catfish reveals about our common loneliness, longing and vulnerabilities as well as how easily we suspend logic in the pursuit of companionship.
2. “The Lonely Ones” (Emily Cooke, The New Inquiry, May 2012)
After several summers of lonely artist residencies in small towns, I was interested in the relationship between loneliness and artistic growth. Cooke looks at the writing of Susan Sontag, Vivian Gornick as well as Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik to explore considerations of “total submission to literature,” the necessity of loneliness and solitude for the elevation of the craft as well as the tension between the exalting and avoiding of solitude.
“…there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful”, writes Chung. In this piece, Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann, It Chooses You by Miranda July and Jeff, One Lonely Guy by Jeff Ragsdale are used by Chung as anchor texts to explore how people cope with loneliness. Most compelling is July’s It Chooses You where she calls people who advertise items for sale in the L.A. Pennysaver, asking them if she can come to their homes with a photographer and tape recorder to interview them.
4. “The AIDS Granny In Exile” (Kathleen McLaughlin, BuzzFeed, December 2013)
Since reading an Economist article about China’s “plasma economy,” a state policy where local officials encouraged peasants to supplement their small incomes by selling blood plasma, I was curious about those who were resisting the government’s cover up of a policy that led to an HIV/AIDS outbreak. McLaughlin sheds some light. In the 1990s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie, now known as the “AIDS Granny” exposed the cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China as well as the government’s role in covering up the “plasma economy.” Seventeen years ago, in pursuit of safety from the Chinese government, she made an unplanned journey from Henan to Harlem where she has chosen to live in solitude, even denying her daughter a visit.
As a fickle user of social media and an avid chaser of articles like this that discuss how social media exploits algorithms to toy with our emotions, I was excited to read Marche’s nuanced piece on the relationship between social media and loneliness. Marche is clear to argue that while social media has broadened our social networks, new research suggests that we approaching an epidemic of loneliness, a “slippery, a difficult state to define or diagnose.” Marche asks us consider the way we use social media rather than “casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse.”
When I read the 2012 New York Times article where researchers found that exclusion and loneliness leads to lower body temperatures, I wondered about the other biological effects of loneliness. Shulevitz discusses how over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and embraced biology in their attempts to better understand how isolation and loneliness affects the body. Research has led to discoveries that have ranked emotional isolation as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Once treated as a public concern, loneliness is now being considered a public health crisis. UCLA researcher, Steve Cole’s findings suggest that social life, particularly loneliness, even affects expression.