The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Summary from Goodreads:

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 the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

It is impossible to walk for long through any large city without passing someone who looks sad and alone and somewhat shrunken. Some days, you might suspect that you are that person. If this thought has ever run through your head, then this book is for you.

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Like her previous works, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, The Lonely City eludes neat categorisation. A fusion of scholarship and memoir, Laing weaves together elements of travel writing, philosophy, biography and art criticism with great tenderness and insight. The result is an elegantly crafted and truly compelling meditation on urban isolation, art, and technology.

In this book, loneliness is both Laing’s subject and emotional state. After a new relationship abruptly dissolved, Laing found herself lost and alone in New York City, “possessed by a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited [her] state”. And so she turned to art as a way of grappling with her own loneliness. In The Lonely City, Laing dedicates her time to examining the lives and work of four very different American artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. A wide cast of secondary subjects (including Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo and Zoe Leonard, among others) also feature in this book and Laing paints an entralling portrait of each and every one of them. Her speculations are sensitive and empathetic, and it is clear that her relationship with the work of each artist is genuine and intimate. In the final chapters (my favourite part of the book), Laing spends a considerable amount of time discussing the AIDS epidemic which swept through the city in the ’80s, as well as the contradictory role the internet plays in our lives, simultaneously connecting and isolating us.

Humane, provocative, and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality, and the magical possibilities of art. It’s 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”. This book is so beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can find an extract from it here if you’re interested.

Have you read The Lonely City? What did you think of it? I would love to hear from you. 


Published by


Anna. Melbourne. Bookseller. Student. Serial tsundokist.

16 thoughts on “The Lonely City – Olivia Laing”

  1. I’ve never heard about this one, but I do love the idea behind it. This whole exploration of loneliness and art. Your beautiful review really shines on the profound nature of this book. Got me all curious, that’s for sure! Fantastic review, again! 😀


  2. It seems like there is a lot happening in this book. Memoir, scholarly research, exploration into the psychological aspects of loneliness– it sounds like things flowed well for you, however. Do you agree? It also sounds like you’ve read Laing’s other works. For someone new to the author, where would you recommend one start?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is quite a lot going on, although the book never feels overstuffed and the writing flows extremely well in my opinion. I read ‘A Trip to Echo Spring’ last year and really enjoyed it – it’s all about the link between literature and alcoholism (she focuses on the work and lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver). It’s definitely worth a read, although I actually preferred this one and think it would be a good place to start if you’re new to Laing’s work. It’s very readable despite the fact that there is so much happening. Highly recommended. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You second to last paragraph made me think that perhaps the author is COMPARING the internet with the AIDs epidemic in a way. Both isolate people and cause society to abandon them. Another thing about the internet (mostly access via phones) is that it spreads like a disease. The minute one person gets out his/her phone, others nearby will do the same. It’s an interesting thought.

    Were you the blogger who asked me for more graphic novel recommendations? I can’t remember, but I would be happy to give you some, if you wish. Although I haven’t read any this year, I have read/reviewed many, many graphic novels over at

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really interesting observation. You’re so right– as soon as one person pulls out their phone and isolates themselves it starts to spread to everyone around them. I’ve seen that happen in so many places. Mostly when waiting is happening. When will people reignite the fine art of being bored in public? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think she is comparing them, but she does so in a very subtle way. The two are never explicitly compared, but one can easily make connections between them. Your point about the internet is very interesting and I completely agree, although I think it also serves to connect people. Take the WordPress community for example. There are so many wonderful people here and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to them if it weren’t for this blog.

      Oh yes, that was me! I will have to stalk your blog and find some good graphic novel recommendations. I’ve been really getting into them recently, and am always on the lookout for good suggestions. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! I really appreciate it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s