That loneliness is a pervasive condition in American society has been evident for years; we bemoan it in popular songs, depict it in paintings, analyze it in articles and books. The most recent of the latter is "Alone in America," in which Louise Bernikow finds loneliness everywhere:
"Not only is loneliness a common experience at one time or another in most people's lives, but it seems hidden away, implied between the lines, insidiously woven into the fabric of most of our social problems. Loneliness propels inordinate numbers of people to abuse alcohol or drugs or other people. Loneliness fills the average workdays of many citizens, and perhaps more, certainly different, kinds of loneliness add to the burden of those who are out of work. It is like the Emperor's nakedness -- obvious to everyone, unuttered."
All of which is true, but the question remains: Is loneliness in America different now than it was a century ago, or a half-century, or a decade? For that matter, is loneliness somehow more widespread now than it was formerly? Bernikow, though she engages in no historical research or analysis, clearly would have us answer both questions in the affirmative, and to her credit she presents ample evidence that the lonely are everywhere. But is the loneliness a person feels today in a singles' apartment complex really any different from the loneliness a person felt in 1886 on a barren plain in Kansas? Probably not: The causes of loneliness may change, but the nature of the beast itself does not. Bernikow's underlying assumption that all of this came to pass only lately is erroneous; as a result "Alone in America" has not much more depth than a run-of-the-mill newspaper feature story.
Over and again, Bernikow seems surprised by things that simply are not surprising: that loneliness is widespread among adolescents and young adults as well as old people; that there is loneliness among married people as well as single ones; that the successful and wealthy can be as lonely as the unknown and unfortunate; that work can cause loneliness as well as provide escape from it. As she travels around from singles' complexes to nursing homes to retirement communities to ordinary households, she repeatedly is startled by the obvious: Loneliness is an inescapable condition of life, perhaps indeed the most inescapable of all since each of us is really known only to himself.
It is possible, though, that there may be some changes in both the causes and nature of loneliness as a result of television, which makes it all the more astonishing that Bernikow never actually pauses to contemplate its effects. She mentions television in passing from time to time, but she never gets around to analyzing phenomena that will seem obvious to any casual observer of social life: that television may cause loneliness and despair by exposing people to ways of life they can never hope to achieve; that television creates imaginary and unreciprocated "friendships" and thus may bring about a new, potentially dangerous kind of loneliness or disorientation; that television can relieve loneliness, especially among the bedridden and isolated.
That these and other questions related to television go to all intents and purposes unconsidered in "Alone in America" leaves the book pretty well beside the point; you simply can't do sociology these days, whether pop or academic, without taking the effects of television into account. A further difficulty with the book is that Bernikow, like too many journalists these days, injects herself into it in unnecessary, gratuitous ways. As it happens she comes across as a decent and compassionate person, but that is no excuse for the wild profusion of first-person singulars with which "Alone in America" is littered from its opening paragraph to its last. "Dr. MacLaughlin and I sat in a dark bar a few paces from Harvard Square." "I sat munching sandwiches with doctors Paul and Frances Lippmann . . . " So what? Who cares?
"Alone in America" is not, to be sure, without its virtues, the most welcome of which is that Bernikow refrains from the psychobabble so endemic among pop psychologists. She makes a real effort to spread her net beyond the white middle class, another rarity in pop psychology, and she doesn't pretend to have any definitive answers to a problem that will be with us for as long as there's an us. But her lack of historical perspective and her failure to examine the role of television are shortcomings from which "Alone in America" never recovers.