When I think about the causes of my occasional feelings of loneliness, one that comes to mind is that I haven’t been part of a book club in at least five years. During the more than two decades that I worked in a church setting, I frequently led as many as three book studies per year and helped to publicize many others. Book clubs, book groups, book studies…whatever you prefer to call them, these “spaces” for engaging and exchanging ideas with others can be incredibly meaningful and insightful. While the words on the page can grow awareness, empathy, and understanding, participation in a book group grows friendships and a sense of connectedness. Perhaps this is especially so when the group reads fiction or nonfiction about loneliness.
Three of the recent nonfiction books I’ve read would all make interesting book group reads, so I thought I’d share them here. Two were specifically about loneliness and isolation, and the third unexpectedly had many ties to that subject.
Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., 2023; audiobook available. Get it here.
Dr. Murthy was the Surgeon General of the United States under Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, and he’s been sounding the alarm about our public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection (which I’ll call the 3 L’s henceforth). His book is most certainly the book that should be at the top of the reading list for anyone interested in this topic.
Together explores a lot of ground, weaving medical studies, stories, and solutions together into a powerful reflection on the causes of loneliness, the unexpected effects it has on our lives, and the proven solutions to reducing it in our own lives and in the lives of others. While it’s filled with terrific medical information, it’s highly readable and engaging. I happened to listen to it in audiobook format; narrated effectively by the author, the book clocks in at 10 hours, 53 minutes (and it’s one you can easily listen to at a faster-than-normal speed if you wish.) I’ve been thinking about this book daily since I finished it a couple of weeks ago.
If ever there was a nonfiction book tailor-made for a book group, this one is it. After all, as others have noted, book groups have the power to solve our loneliness epidemic. I often find it’s rather easy to detach myself from the content when I’m in a group reading a nonfiction book. That is, it’s frequently easier for me to talk about the content than it is to talk about my connection to the content. Together, though, pushes the reader to reflect, to engage, and to connect. It offers countless entry points where a person can reflect on and talk about their experiences and reflections. While it doesn’t include a study guide, my sense is participants in a group will have no trouble thinking of stories and experiences from their own lives that relate to most or all of the chapters. And through the sharing of stories, deeper relationships and connections can form.
The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other
by Charlotte Donlon, 2020. Get it here.
In 2009, I left my job at a church in order to pursue some other interests. When I woke up the Sunday after my final week, it occurred to me that I had nowhere I needed to be on a Sunday morning for the first time in my life. You see, my dad was a pastor, so I spent countless hours in the church next door to our house. In college, I was in a singing group that visited different churches weekly. After that, I had jobs in churches for the next twenty years.
Out of curiosity, I pulled out the phone book and counted up the churches in my town. There were 52 of them. Since at the time I was a budding author, I thought it might be interesting to visit one church per week for a year and then write about the experience. For a variety of reasons that never happened, but I did learn a lot of things about churches that I’d never fully noticed before. Among them: loneliness runs deep in religious organizations. There’s no one reason for this, but churches and other communities of faith have a very hard time growing a real sense of community. My visits forced me to encounter my own loneliness that I had felt for years as a staff person, along with my inability to consistently help both newcomers and long-time members feel more connected to others.
I share that story here because it’s the kind of thing that fills the pages of this book. Donlon shares stories from her own life, one which has been marked regularly by loneliness. Each chapter is brief – two to four pages generally – and contains her reflections on those stories and what they have taught her about loneliness. They’re each very quick and easy to read, and as is typically the case with personal stories, some I moved past quickly. Others got my full attention, and I would literally close the book to ponder that chapter’s bits of wisdom. I would have loved to have dialogued about those chapters especially with others.
Several of the stories in The Great Belonging describe faith-related experiences or theological reflections about God. They come from the author’s Christian perspective, but they are generally more “spiritual than religious,” more interfaith and reflective than specific and preachy. As such, they would lend themselves well to a book group that has some religious diversity and an interest in meaning and depth of purpose. Included at the end are some reflection questions that are good for reflection or discussion following each chapter or section (there are 4 of them). In addition, there are some additional short poems, prayers and readings in an appendix that could be useful for group use.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters
by Kate Murphy, 2020; audiobook available. Get it here.
While putting together a list of books to eventually read on the topic of loneliness, finding a book about the skill of listening didn’t cross my mind. But when I stumbled on You’re Not Listening, I immediately grasped this was a topic with great relevance to the epidemic of loneliness we face. In a world where communicate in brief and often harsh ways online, our lack of ability to listen to one another is directly related to our experiences of loneliness.
Murphy’s engaging and easy-to-digest book is full of excellent reflections about listening. We hear insights from people who must be excellent listeners due their jobs, methods for listening to our internal dialogue, practices for being better and more present online and in person with others, and lots more. And yes, listening as a balm for loneliness is explored in some of the chapters. It’s the kind of book that will linger because you know it very well may be the skill you most need to work on and the one that could potentially make the greatest difference for you and others.
I have been a participant in book groups where I frequently feel as if I’m thinking far more about what I want to say next rather than being fully present to listen to others. Even though I’ve had extensive training in being a careful and present listener, the reality is that it’s much easier for me to tune out, to sink within, to half-heartedly pay attention. My sense is that Murphy’s book would give book club members an opportunity to both think, feel, and practice. That is, there’s an incredible wealth of insight in the pages to think about; there’s a lot that feels a bit like a knife to the heart; there’s the potential for real connection in the midst of the practicing the skills. As was true with the other books, you’ll likely find you want to talk about this book with everyone, from your spouse and friends to your coworkers and people you just met.