"When Kristen Radtke was in her twenties, she learned that, as her father was growing up, he would crawl onto his roof in rural Wisconsin and send signals out on his ham radio. Those CQ calls were his attempt to reach somebody--anybody--who would respond. In Seek You, Radtke uses this image as her jumping off point into a piercing exploration of loneliness and the ways in which we attempt to feel closer to one another. She looks at the very real current crisis of loneliness through the lenses of gender, violence, technology, and art. Ranging from the invention of the laugh-track to Instagram to Harry Harlow's experiments in which infant monkeys were given inanimate surrogate mothers, Radtke uncovers all she can about how we engage with friends, family, and strangers alike, and what happens--to us and to them--when we disengage. With her distinctive, emotionally charged drawings and unflinchingly sharp prose, Kristen Radtke masterfully reframes some of our most vulnerable and sublime moments"--
I’ve been watching and reading online interviews of the author, and she’s impressively thoughtful, smart, funny, and clever. One of the interviews was of her at a big European book convention, where booksellers were walking by the couch where she was answering questions. For several decades I went to regional and national book conventions in this country, but watching those European booksellers passing by, I quickly learned that they were much better dressed than my American compatriots, but the variety and style was still recognizable as bookseller-like.
The text is a narrative that reaches from her personal experiences, and deep into social science, philosophy, pop culture, and even evolutionary biology. She writes personally and broadly about loneliness, looking at the science of solitude, and how it effects individual people and the larger society. The book looks at how so much isolation is built into our society, how that comes about, how it affects us, and how we can battle it, because it so strongly changes our mental and physical well-being. Some call isolation a silent epidemic in America, one that most don’t even want to talk about. She clearly shows her serious concern about people’s emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing.
There is a section of the book that focuses on the work of the scientist Harry Harlow, and it is uncomfortable to read because of the horrible abuse perpetrated on monkeys, but also unforgettable because it illustrates how crucial interaction with others is. “Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general, has said that the most prevalent health issue in America is isolation.”
I found the section where she writes about actual human connection most fascinating. “Psychologists call our appetite for human touch ‘skin hunger.’ It’s an odd and beautiful name that connotes not a want but a need. When we are hungry, we must eat. So, too, is the body’s desire for touch designed to bring us toward another person, because so much—our immune system, our hormone release, our mental health—relies in part on human contact to continue functioning as it should.” I thought of my Vermont upbringing when she wrote, “I was raised with the tenets of Midwestern Politeness. Be quiet. Don’t touch.” Similarly, she (and I) changed as we matured. “I find myself going out of my way to touch people at parties when we’re chatting casually, to test myself and them, putting my hand on the small of their back when they make me laugh, clutching their elbow when I lean in to make a point. I do it to them because when other people do it to me, I feel so at the center of their focus, elevate to some new level of importance during a casual exchange.” She then went on to write about how in self-help books on communication and negotiation very often it’s stated that “one of the easiest ways to manipulate someone is to touch them: you are important to me and you are heard and I am the one that hears you.”
A curious side-note: The book’s title of Seek You comes about from the world of amateur radio operators (which her father so loved) and their use of monotone beeps “CQ call” (French being the official language of international telecommunications)—CQ sounded like the first two letters of sécurité, and over time, English speakers took it to stand for Seek You, as in, “Is there anyone out there?”
She writes about the power of the crowd. The original laugh track, the process of “sweetening” an audience’s laughter, was from the 1950s and the recorded laugher for a comic, Bob Burns, who was on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Actor David Niven was not a fan, and called the laugh track “The single greatest affront to public intelligence I know.” Yet Radtke points out that, “A joke that would elicit only a subdued chuckle from a TV viewer on their couch, can receive a roar from a theater full of people, because the shared experience of public entertainment grants us license to give in.” She also said that it was watching Friends that taught her what she was supposed to find funny, oh socialization.
“When I observe teenagers in public now, I sometimes wonder if their experience of adolescence has any overlap with mine, because the access I had to the world—downright quaint when juxtaposed with what’s available to a bored thirteen-year-old today.” There are 93,000,000 selfies posted every day, and one has to wonder how that will affect the future of all of us. Along that line, the following line most likely includes you the reader at least once. “Loneliness generally peaks at three ages: late twenties, mid-fifties, and eighties.”
Let me include this fine comment on the book. “Seek You stunned me. Kristen Radthe, one of our best literary artists, shines her brilliant light into modern America’s experiment in loneliness with this supremely elegant and devastating book. It was my companion during a long, dark night of the soul; I emerged grateful to have had such sleekness and wit, such calm intelligence to guide me back to daylight.” – Lauren Groff
I’ve read the book twice already and will most certainly return to it again. Massive loneliness is something that I deal with every day since my long-time wife and partner died a few years ago. Radtke has created a most intelligent and involving book that’s a treat for the eye and the mind. She speaks directly to a very serious issue in today’s world, an issue most definitely amped up in a major way by the isolation of this pandemic. Good luck to all of us.
* This book is a mash-up of an essay and a memoir, yet many booksellers would still call it and shelve it as a graphic novel—because no other term has carried the day. Yeah, there is nonfiction comics, graphic memoir, graphic nonfiction, and the ridiculous nonfiction graphic novel. All the people who deal with words for a living (writers, publishers, and booksellers) have agreed on no clear alternative or replacement. Come on people.
“There is a reason that, short of execution, banishment was the harshest punishment a king could bestow.”
Using the graphic novel format, Radtke explores loneliness, in all it’s different forms. A meditation on longing and isolation. She goes deep here and has really done her research. There is plenty to ponder here. The author has suffered through these various maladies herself, for most of her adult life, so she has an insider’s grasp on this topic. I highly recommend it.
The subtitle says this is a journey, but it's more like we keep circling the block and ending up back at the author's place. After going round and round and occasionally taking a digressive loop around the next block over, Radtke doesn’t really have much of a conclusion or solution to offer regarding loneliness. Unless she was implying we should buy potential mass murderers, incels, and Trumpists lifetime memberships in cuddle clubs. Could we start a fundraiser for that?
Bottom line, I was bored and spent too much time thinking about how she only has one way to draw eyebrows and maybe four ways to draw people.
Very interesting and very timely (pandemic and political extremism of 2020-22)
The author gives autobiographical information, biographical information about others, information about and results & quotes from various studies about loneliness and related topics, lists books and other sources, all within the book proper. Many of the images combine illustration/images and pertinent text on many of the pages.
For me there was a melancholy feel to the narrative, apropos for the subject of loneliness.
I enjoyed reading snippets of information I don’t remember ever knowing about the lives of some of the psychology researchers whose work I studied when I was in college. I wish I’d known even more back then about how mentally unhealthy some of them were. I supposed I should have realized that in most cases, even without knowing details about their personal lives.
One finding I hadn’t considered and found interesting is how loneliness is contagious. I’ve known that anxiety could be contagious but I never thought of loneliness as contagious and that it was through more than just the people actually relating with one another, that people never near the lonely person can be affected by someone who has been. A lot of the accounts in this book are a criticism of modern American society. I found that particularly true in the section on old age and loneliness but it was true of the entire book, even though it was made clear that individuals can and do experience feelings of loneliness even when they’re not alone, are married, and are engaged with the world.
In a way this book has depth and it has substance, but in terms of volume of substance there isn’t that much. Without the graphic content this could be a couple of short essays or maybe an article/paper. The six pages of notes at the end were interesting.
This is not a book to read as an audio book! The images cannot be separated from the text and the text on its own would not have the same power. I don’t think there should be an audio edition of this book.
I’m glad that I read this book and I have another book by this author/illustrator on my to read list that I also want to read.