Bowling Alone [Book Review]


Bowling Alone feels like a textbook in disguise. It’s thick with 400 pages of reading material and 100 pages of backup references. It’s dense with the work written in ~ 8 point font and completely void of any humor wet your palette. And it’s very predictable. If you don’t want to read the rest of this review, you probably aren’t going to be interested in reading this book either.

You really need the motive to get through every chapter…..and I did NOT.

Of course, this book is not about bowling. The story goes is that the author, Robert Putnam, was trying to study isolation in cities and was interested in how to quantitatively measure this. One of the few ways is to determine what activities one can do alone, something that can be counted. Then he got the idea that people of all ages and types can bowl, and you don’t need anyone to bowl with. One can grab a lane, get a beer, and just bowl while watching the TVs on the far end of the lane. Thus, the term “bowling alone” became a catchy term in his research group, since the decline of bowling leagues conveniently correlated well with his social index values for various areas.

Thus, Bowling Alone, is about how we are becoming less involved in social activities, more isolated from one another, and even more self-centered and narcissist as a community. The major factors include a lack of faith in our current government,  more women moving away from their traditional stay-at-home roles,  and the invention of mass media isolating us from one another. Television is observed as THE #1 cause in these acts, allowing the easy access to effortless entertainment for the masses.

There is a philological worry that as we solve our societies’ problems of resources and the need for humans to work (as the robots do everything for us), the majority of humans will succumb to the effortless pleasure triggers of food, sex, sleep….. and of course television viewing. When that time comes, there’ll be enough media to entertain one for a lifetime without requiring others to make new content. Only the few, ambitious individuals (or maybe just robots) will create the machines and selflessly build the system for the masses, just to fulfill a sense of purpose…. kind of like in WALL-E, the movie.

But back to the book……

There are four sections to this book: What, Why, Why bother, and What next.

What – The individual chapters focus on topics in which we are less involved. And after the first two chapters… you get the idea; we aren’t participating as much without many exceptions. I excessively skimmed the second half of this section.

Why – This describes the cultural and technological changes that may have caused this shift, including the topics I described above. This is the most impressive portion of the book, and it’s interesting to read how an economist filters through the noise and possible exceptions to draw conclusions from highly noisy and multi-faceted environment. If you read anything from this book, focus on this section.

Why bother – There is a value labeled “social capital index” that Robert correlated with numerous benefits both economically and socially. The more you trust and can cooperate with your neighbors, the less you need to invest in security, insurance, lawyers, counseling, etc. When everyone is actively aware of their community, more opportunities are also available to those well connected. Politics no longer have to be solely a money-filled advertising game. But like the first section, the dead horse is beaten thoroughly into the grave. Besides the first and last chapters, just look at the graphs [more at the end].

What next – Two chapters focus on what society has done and can do to improve social capital. There is a long rambling of the 19th century and its workings in society that got us to where we, which we could learn from its mistakes and successes (but I skipped this chapter as well). The last chapter of the book is basically a conclusion about the main steps we can take to become more social and interconnected:

  • Make work places more family-friendly and community centered
  • Reduce commuting time and instead invest that time knowing your neighbors
  • Become more engaged in a spiritual community
  • Reduce your time in front of screens and more time in front of others
  • Increase participation in cultural activities and festivals with art as a medium
  • Heighten participation and leadership in local politics

There. Done. It felt like a textbook; I’ll write it like a little high school report. And don’t feel bad about skipping pages or chapters (which I did for almost all of the third section). There are plenty of graphs that summary pages at a time.

There are literally paragraphs that just regurgitate what you can easily see in the graphs in excruciating detail! Your time is valuable; get out and meet someone. And if you don’t know anyone, I highly  suggest as a way to get out and try something new.



A cool note: I moved to Minnesota, which is in the top 5 states in the nation with the highest social capital index. With the others being ND, SD, MT, and VT, I would assume MN is the only one with a major metropolitan area.

And I can totally agree with this based on my initial experience thus far. It’s not “in your face” or anything, but my friends circle is definitely growing at a faster pace than it was when I moved to MI over 3 years ago. It’s that, or I just got better at making friends.

This is what I call “exercising my extrovert muscles!”