What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks to Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, from Henry Darger's hoarding to David Wojnarowicz's AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone.
Humane, provocative and moving, The Lonely City is a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.
You can read extracts in the Observer and BBC Culture, read interviews with The New Yorker, Salon, Charlie Porter and Elle, and listen to interviews on Radio 3, Radio 4, 6 Music and the Guardian podcast.
From the reviews...
‘A continually unexpected, stimulating, beautifully structured book. I am in awe of Olivia Laing's insights, braininess, and that something that feels like recklessness until it lands.’ Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
‘The Lonely City is a stunning homage to how extreme loneliness can make us more hospitable to the strangeness of others - to the risks and innovations of art and artists. Laing has written a classic that will be cherished for years to come.’ Deborah Levy, Swimming Home
‘A remarkable combination of personal mediation and psychological and artistic inquiry, The Lonely City is always superbly written, fascinating and often sharply moving. Ultimately the book has a paradoxical effect: at the same time as it makes one aware of one's own inescapable solitude, it leaves one feeling less alone.’ Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
‘Luminously wise and deeply compassionate, The Lonely City is a fierce and essential work. Laing is a masterful biographer, memoirist and critic. Fearlessly tracing the roots of loneliness, its forbidding consequences, and its complicated and beautiful relationship with art, it is powerful, poignant and magical. Reading it made my heart ache yet filled me with hope for the world.’ Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
‘Endlessly, compulsively fascinating, Laing’s book has a character of its own. Like the city, it has a dark sheen, sidling out of the shadows, by turns alluring and curious, angry and exciting. The Lonely City changes the way we think about art, the people who make it, and the price they pay.’ Philip Hoare, New Statesman
‘Stitching and collaging odd fragments and genres together, Laing goes beyond reparation to offer something beautifully integrated, original, compassionate. She does not pose as a professional expert; her very subjectivity, her own suffering, confer her authority because they are so enmeshed with her powerful intelligence.’ Michèle Roberts, The Independent
‘[Laing] is a brave writer whose books, in their different ways, open up fundamental questions about life and art… This triumphant book is in part an appeal for us to value the kind of loneliness that can be rendered, by the intimacy of art, both tolerable and shareable.’ Telegraph *****
‘One of the finest writers of the new non-fiction… compelling and original.’ Harpers Bazaar
‘A wonderfully melancholy meditation on modern art, urban space and the complexity of being alone... Without glamorizing either loneliness or the urban decay of New York in the ’70s, The Lonely City builds an impassioned case for difficulty and difference, for social rebellion and the unpredictable artistic richness that can result.’ Washington Post
‘She writes with lyrical clarity, empathy, and a knack for taking a wandering, edgy path, stretching themes (and genres), while never losing an underlying urgency... Joining disparate motifs and people, without formal strain, is one of the many achievements of this remarkable book.’ Evening Standard
‘An uncommonly observant hybrid of memoir, history and cultural criticism... a book of extraordinary compassion and insight.’ San Francisco Chronicle
‘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… Reading this book made me feel aloneness more acutely, but also exposed its value. As Laing describes finding consolation in the world of artists, so this book serves as both provocation and comfort, a secular prayer for those who are alone—meaning all of us.’ The New York Times Book Review
‘Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations! ... Laing is a great critic, not least because she understands that art can and often does manifest multiple conflicting meanings and desires at once.’ Laura Miller, Slate
‘Especially elegant... The real heart of the book... is in the wonderfully freewheeling elucidation of the artists themselves, and, above all, in the constantly surprising connections Laing discovers between them.’ James Lasdun, Book of the Week, Guardian
‘Olivia Laing... picks up the topic of painful urban isolation and sets it down in many smart and oddly consoling places. She makes the topic her own.’ Dwight Garner, New York Times
‘Extraordinary, and extremely powerful... Laing’s discussions of these matters are considered, authoritative, evocative, empathetic, and full of insight and illuminating comparisons. The attentiveness of her observations, the depth of her feeling, sharpens and enriches your own intellectual and emotional response to the questions she addresses, and does so in an atmosphere of intimate confession, and of gentle but restless rumination.’ The National
‘Laing is an astute and consistently surprising culture critic who deeply identifies with her subjects' vulnerabilities ... absolutely one of a kind.’ Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
‘It's not easy to pull off switching between criticism and confession - and like Echo Spring, The Lonely City is an impressive and beguiling combination of autobiography and biography, a balancing act that Laing effortlessly performs. Her gift as a critic is her ability to imaginatively sympathize with her subject in a way that allows the art and life of the artist to go on radiating meaning after the book is closed.’ Elle
‘A lovely thing... Exceptionally skillful at changing gears, Ms. Laing moves fluently between memoir, biography (not just of her principal cast but of a large supporting one), art criticism and the fruits of her immersion in ‘loneliness studies.’ Her phrasing has a chaste, lyric plangency apt to her topic. She writes about Darger and the rest with insight and empathy and about herself with a refreshing lack of exhibitionism… every page of The Lonely City exudes a disarming, deep-down fondness for humanity.’ The Wall Street Journal
‘Laing goes on to touch on the work and lives of such diverse artists as, ready? Alfred Hitchcock, Valerie Solanas, Nan Goldin , Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday and Jean Michel Basquiat . Quite a list. That she does so with empathy and artistic understanding is impressive enough; that she interweaves a personal record of her own solitary period is masterful. This is a highly recommended read for all manner of urban loners, introverts and semi-loners.’ Bay Area Reporter
‘Laing's descripions of her own loneliness feel unusually brave... Sublime.’ The Times
‘Despite the painful thoughts The Lonely City sometimes triggered, this is a book that left me feeling encouraged. Laing takes all sorts of people, events, cultural attitudes and political items and stitches them together to create a new, compelling whole. I use the word "stitches" deliberately in an admiring nod to Laing, who sees the act of stitching as both a symbol of protest and an act of healing.’ Chicago Tribune
‘Moving effortlessly between subjects, Laing uses everything from biochemistry and urban theory to art criticism and technology...It's a stunning balance... The Lonely City bristles with heart-piercing wisdom.’ NPR
‘Laing writes with a compassion and curiosity rarely seen in any genre.’ The Rumpus
‘Laing... here performs an almost magical trick: Reminding us of how it feels to be lonely, this book gently affirms our connectedness.’ Boston Globe
‘Many passages as bruised and gorgeous as those in the fictions of writers such as Jean Rhys and Sam Selvon... eschewing narcissism and navel-gazing to the end.’ Sukhdev Sandhu, The Spectator
‘Laing cuts close to the bone of a universal yet often unrelatable state, to home in on sensations that, she suggests, we are predisposed to forget; and to find solace in artists who, were it not for their work, would have been forgotten. These are the strokes of Laing’s portraits: glowing souls in the middle of a long night.’ Financial Times
‘Loneliness as a paradox essential to art and civilization is the essence of this remarkable book. It is also conclusive affirmation that its author, Olivia Laing, is one of the most fascinating and unexpected of all current writers… Singular, fiercely candid and rare.’ Buffalo News, Editor's Choice
‘A deep and resounding exploration of loneliness and all that it holds... this book is as dazzling as it is unique.’ Bustle
‘Intensely involving and affecting... Laing's superb study extends far beyond art criticism.’ The Lady
‘Affecting, compelling, deeply humane.’ Herald Scotland
‘Laing perceives that loneliness is not only a sense of isolation but also of brokenness, and that art can be an annealing force. And like the artists she profiles, she refuses to look away from pain or simplify trauma, or deny anyone respect or dignity. Through her ardent research, empathetic response, original thought, courageous candor, and exquisite language, Laing joins the ever-growing pool of writers... who are transforming memoir into a daring and dynamic literary form of discovery that laces the stories of individuals into the continuum of humanity and the larger web of life on Earth to provocative and transforming effect.’ Booklist (starred review)
‘Olivia Laing's soulful blend of biography and memoir makes her one of the most compelling nonfiction writers around... Laing's own wrestling with loneliness, and her readings in psychology and philosophy, weave in and out of these portraits, creating a complex and multilayered narrative. Her experiences... offer a humane and sensitive lens through which to view the life and art of her subjects. This is a stunning book on the nearly universal experience of being alone.’ BookPage (Top Pick)
‘An absorbing melding of memoir, biography, art essay, and philosophical meditation... An illuminating, enriching book.' Kirkus Reviews
‘By focusing on four artists… Laing’s writing becomes expansive, exploring their biographies, sharing art analysis, and weaving in observations from periods of desolation that was at times “cold as ice and clear as glass.” She invents new ways to consider how isolation plays into art or even the Internet... For once, loneliness becomes a place worth lingering.’ Publishers Weekly
‘The Lonely City unpacks, with harrowing depth and impeccable bedside manner, why it is we’re all subletting, which is to say, why we’re all desperate to find a notion of home that sticks, a permanence of feeling content in our own bodies, in an environment that actually wants us there.’ Globe and Mail
‘Connecting becomes less intimidating if the fear of failure is removed. This brave book is a step in that direction.’ The Economist
‘The prose in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is so fine it could makes anyone who is not the author’s friend or relative almost glad she suffered so much if it led to a book like this.’ Salon
‘A book about far more than how loneliness shapes art. [If you’re lonely you] will find in these pages an astute friend whose way with words lights up a melancholy subject.’ Mail on Sunday
‘One of the most talented cultural critics of her generation . . . a brave, vulnerable book.’ Metro
The Future of Loneliness: an essay in the Guardian on loneliness and the internet.
The Magic Box: an essay in Granta about David Wojnarowicz, Aids and the gentrification of NYC.
Me, Myself and I: an essay in Aeon on art, sex, loneliness, David Wojnarowicz and the Hudson river piers.
This project is supported by the Arts Council England, the British Library, and the Corporation of Yaddo.