The Lonely City, Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing


First Paragraph: “Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.”

Oliva Laing found herself lonely living in Manhattan as a young woman in her mid-thirties. Her own inability to connect were likely the source for many of her thoughts and they are the points found in the artists and stories she features to explain the isolation and pain of loneliness. She explores their lives and works.

Artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and others show the reality of being isolated in a big city. Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks is the focus of a chapter on this artist. Nighthawks is a stand-alone diner, with distinctive rounded corners sitting between tall buildings. Silence itself is a part of the painting and it is reflected inside and out of the dinner. No visible doors and thick glass on the rounded windows suggests that those inside are trapped. The people inside the diner are not talking or looking at each other.

Oliva Laing had ample reason to see in her own experiences as being confirmed by the artists whose stories she used. Maybe more of her own stories would have been useful. 

“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” 

"You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.” 
―Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone


The Nighthawk Diner

"Nighthawks was inspired by Hemingway's short story 'The Killers,' which Hopper read in Scribner's magazine