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Three books examine the perils and pleasures of being alone

Three books examine the perils and pleasures of being alone

I T is WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, that great coiner, who is given credit for the word. Coriolanus, one of his heroes, compares going into exile to a “lonely dragon” retreating to his lair. The Roman general was talking about a physical state: someone who was lonely was simply alone.

Then, thanks to the Romantic poets, the word took on emotional overtones. Loneliness became a condition of the soul. For William Wordsworth, who famously “wandered lonely as a cloud”, the natural world offered a reprieve from negative feelings of isolation-a host of daffodils could provide “jocund company”.

By the early 20th century loneliness had come to be considered one of the defining afflictions of urban life. Hannah Arendt lamented that a feeling that was “once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses”.

Her concerns resonate today, as loneliness is often identified as a serious public-health problem, an epidemic even, that afflicts the elderly and young alike. Continue reading