A customer told me about a book called Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. I have not read the book, and don’t even intend to, because I think I’ve gotten the concept and no one seems to be suggesting that we read this book for its scintillating wit or lyrical prose or stimulating plot.

But lots of folks are recommending that we read it for our own good. Here’s the concept: Americans are losing the benefits of community and networking. There has been a 40% overall decline in community activity in the past quarter century, including everything from neighborhood potlucks to voting. Many Americans no longer leave their homes except to go to work, we avoid human interaction in our daily transactions, and we have become spectators of life. We watch TV for hours every day and know more about the Desperate Housewives than about our neighbors. We go bowling, but no longer join leagues. We bowl alone.

Here’s an essay by the author if you want more than just the concept.

He may have a point. Not for me, of course, since I belong to several groups, shop with local farmers and businesspeople, and hardly even watch TV, but I live in a little college town in the rural South. I can imagine someone getting up in the morning alone and going to work, where there is a hurried simulation of social interaction with people who pretend to like each other, driving through someplace for dinner (and I think there are places now where you can “pay at the pump” for food), and then spending the evening with the TV, maybe taking out time for some online shopping. Who will such a person turn to in times of need? Who will they celebrate with? Who will support their ventures, and when will they have the satisfaction of supporting someone else’s?

Online friendships are great, and I do feel that Xanga is a community, but those of you that I know only online are not going to throw showers for my daughters, and I am not going to be there to help you turn the heel of your sock. We are not keeping an eye out for each other’s kids or borrowing a cup of sugar from each other (though we have had some yarn and book exchanges).

And if Putnam is to be believed, this affects our health as well as the health of our nation. Loneliness and isolation are harming us, and we feel helpless to improve our nation’s troubles. Putnam does, however, have some suggestions about what to do about this.

What groups do people still belong to? Religious ones, first. Then about 5% of us belong to something like Alcoholics Anonymous or other self-help groups, and nearly that many to book clubs.

At Chamber Singers last night, we banded together to do something cheering for one of our former members who is struggling with postpartum depression. This is one of the benefits of group membership.

We also worked on a song by Henry VIII expressing another benefit of togetherness. Idleness, he said, leads to vice, so it is better to hang out with your friends. He intended to dance and go hunting and play games, and who was gonna stop him?

Actually, he said “Who shall me let?”but that means the same thing. That could just as well have been his motto.

I find it very cool that we are singing some thing written by ol’ Henry. It makes me feel connected to history.