The end of the year is such a crap time to try to read anything - travels and messed up work schedules and holidays all seem to play a role in making it difficult to sit down and read. Despite that fact and the not-so-insignificant fact that I was beta-reading Heidi's latest novel, I had been reading the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. This book has been on my radar for a while, but for whatever reason, I had never picked it up.
Bowling Alone is a very meticulously researched tome about how Americans have lost their sense of community. It takes its title from the statistic that the number of people bowling has steadily increased over the last 20-30 years, but the number of people who participate in league bowling has dropped precipitously. Putnam expands on this example and shows how civic participation has dropped consistently and significantly, especially in the latter part of the 20th century. His argument is that without this civic involvement, people are no longer connecting with each other and what he terms as "social capital" is on the decline.
I have to admit that I did not finish this book. I was about 150 pages into it and when I went to renew it, I discovered that someone else wanted it at the library. That having been said, I don't feel like I missed much by not finishing it. I feel like I got the general gist of it in what I did read. Part of the problem with the book is that it is VERY repetitive. Although each chapter examines a different segment of community - participation in politics and religion, workplace and other "looser" social interactions as well as volunteer and charitable work, it seemed like the same message was being hammered over and over again. After a while I was very much of the mind "YES WE GET IT. People don't connect anymore."
Honestly, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Examples abound not just in my life, but I'm sure in everybody's. I look back at my parents' generation (my folks are on the leading edge of the baby boom) and the things they did when we were growing up. They belonged to a very active church fellowship. They played cards once a month with 3 other couples, and while the couples changed over the years, it wasn't until I was married with a child of my own that they really stopped. My dad was a member of the Lions Club selling light bulbs to help blind people. My mom was a member of Faculty Wives, the spousal organization of the high school where my dad worked. People stopped by - I vividly remember the pastor showing up unannounced while my dad was working outside, although in hindsight, I think it was to heckle my father into coming to church. We knew all our neighbors.
That doesn't hold true so much anymore. A couple years back, the UU Fellowship where I am a member tried to start a young-adult fellowship and while it had its moments, I'm not sure that you could safely say that it ever really got off the ground. That certainly wasn't for lack of trying, and I shoulder at least a piece of the blame for that as I really didn't go but a couple of times. Any attempt that Heidi and I have made (admittedly, not many) at setting up monthly or even quarterly type get togethers with friends often find themselves stymied by prior committments, be they work or family or whatever. Stopping by unannounced is not only perceived as the height of rudeness, but is also likely to find the people whose house you're stopping by either not at home or in the process of getting home or leaving again. And really, service organizations like Elks and Lions and Rotary are going the way of the dodo bird, a relic of days gone by.
What do I think of this? Well, I think it's sad, but it's not all that surprising. We spend more time commuting to jobs that are farther away that require more and more of our time. We are overscheduled to the hilt with obilgations to this thing or that thing, especially those of us with children. It'd be really easy to lay the blame on our virtual lives - Facebook and Twitter may keep us in touch with far flung friends and family, but is this any replacement for face-to-face contact?
I would argue that none of those things are solely to blame. Blaming the internet is like blaming TV or XBoxes for the fact that kids don't play outside any longer - it's too simplistic. But I do think that we're missing something, not being as connected as we once were. I often say that online relationships are great and can be as fulfilling as real-world, local relationships, but you can't put someone who lives in Timbuktu, Internetland as the emergency contact on your child's school registration. And I love commenting on people's Facebook status and @replying them on Twitter as much as the next person, but for me, it's not the same as time spent in real live conversation which is something that, even as introverted as I can be, I do crave.
I don't know what the answer is, and since I didn't finish the book, I don't know what Putnam's final conclusions are either. But the book did get me thinking about social capital. It's caused me to be really conscious of times when I am building social capital and times that I am deliberately choosing not to. So for that, I am thankful to the book, But ultimately, although the book had an interesting premise, I wasn't terribly surprised when I found out the book had its genesis as a magazine article. It probably could have stayed that way.