Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
by Robert D. Putnam
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Summary: Author Putnam does a great job detailing the collapse of America’s civic institutions over the last third of the 20th Century. However, he has no ideas as to how to solve this problem. Bowling Alone has some great ideas, but it’s not much fun to read.
Review: How many of your neighbors do you know? When was the last time you went to a club meeting? Have you written any letters to the editor of your local newspaper?
Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam looks at all of these questions – and many others – in Bowling Alone. What he finds is that – since the 1960s – Americans have become steadily disengaged from our society. Putnam holds that there are many reasons for this problem – increased mobility, technology, work pressures, among others.
More impressively, he also demonstrates that the decline in “social capital” matters. He compares states with high and low social capital and finds that quality of life is much higher in states where people are involved in their communities. (Conservatives will note that many of the high capital places are the liberal “blue” states, while the more-individualistic “red” states are ranked near the bottom of Putnam’s rankings).
Several problems plague Bowling Alone. First, Putnam cannot write for a popular audience. He quotes at length from reams of dry journal articles, causing the reader to lose interest. Too bad Simon and Schuster didn’t partner Putnam with a talented wordsmith who could have made the material “come alive” for the reader.
Another problem is that Bowling Alone too often gives in to nostalgia, pining for a “glorious past” when people knew their neighbors and joined clubs. Therefore, though Putnam’s politics clearly are on the Left, Bowling Alone has a deeply conservative streak.
Even more troubling is that Putnam has no idea of how to reverse the tide. For instance, in his discussion of suburban sprawl, Putnam touts the “new urbanism,” which urges people to move back to “built up” areas; but – as even Putnam acknowledges – the suburbs have sprawled because people have chosen to settle there. Putnam devotes a brief section at the end of the book to suggestions for fixing the problem, but the material is weak and the reader feels no optimism that Americans will soon become more engaged.
The “meat” of Bowling Alone (i.e., its content) is quite interesting. Putnam has good grasp on our civic disengagement and why it matters. Unfortunately, the presentation is weak and makes the book slow going. If I had to give the book a simple “thumbs up” or “down,” I’d recommend that potential readers skip it.