Some books are so persuasive that they become clichés. This was the fate of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” published two decades ago. Backed with mountains of alarming data, the book’s core argument—that Americans were falling away from civic, social and political engagement and toward an atomized individualism—served as a kind of foghorn, warning of coming trouble in a moment of relative hope and confidence. It was an immediate hit, but many critics thought its case too gloomy.
Within a decade, the critics’ hopefulness had mostly dissipated, and the book was understood as a guide to an increasingly angry and frustrated society. And by now, republished in a slightly revised and expanded 20th-anniversary edition, “Bowling Alone” (Simon & Schster, 581 pages, $20) seems if anything to understate its case. Americans are not just less engaged in civic life; many are intensely alienated, isolated and lonely. We have adopted the parlance of “deaths of despair” and internalized the sense that we are coming apart.