Reading Books

Finding Ourselves in Solitude: Seeking Solace in Books

A booklist for the quiet soul finding peace in solitude.

A woman sits reading alone on the banks of a river with autumn leaves on the ground. Her back is to the camera.

It seems like in the blink of an eye, bustling metropolises the world over shuttered up storefronts, and citizens retreated into apartments before they had a chance to make sure there was toilet paper in the cabinet and survival staples in the pantry. The streets stretched desolately through darkened skyscrapers, and we had barely gasped as the words “Coronavirus” and “COVID” escaped our lips for the first time.

Quarantine came as a shock to the system to many, and we were faced with an isolation  that at first may have been an introvert’s dream come true, but that slowly wound its way around us like a cloak of deafening silence, leaving many feeling hopeless, scared, depressed and, of course, oh-so-lonely.

Solitude can be frightening. We have to face ourselves, bargain with the voices in our heads, find ways to entertain ourselves, and make ourselves useful. But there is a certain peace that can emerge, once we sink into it and swim about in the depths of it. There are riches to be found. Artists, writers, rebels, and adventurers throughout time have known this.

Here I chose a small selection of books that explore some of the many facets of learning that can come from solitude.

The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod

Called “Into the Wild meets Walden” and “a balm for world-weary souls” (in its Kirkus Reviews write-up), Axelrod takes us with him during his two years of solitude in the Vermont woods and his search for self as a young man. His lush prose adroitly skirts the edges of both the landscapes surrounding him and the unknown and sacred spaces within himself.

Solitude: A Return to the Self by Anthony Storr

Emerging as new material before the “self-help” genre existed, this book lays out why spending time with ourselves is even more important than the relationships we cultivate for our mental health and creativity, and for the progress of society as a whole. The author shares the stories of renowned artists and writers, such as Beethoven and Beatrix Potter, and the role solitude played in developing their work.

Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Solitude’s gifts of time and space can open up worlds we’re usually too busy to notice. The beauty and simplicity found in the title of this book is echoed throughout, as the author closely observes this small, seemingly insignificant creature while she is bedridden. She finds a better understanding of her place in the world and solace in her connection with the snail as she is able to slow down enough to see it.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

An extraordinary story of one man’s escape into the woods and what comes about during his 27 years away from the rest of civilization, the author’s account of Christopher Knight touches the part in all of us that longs to get away from it all and retreat into the wild. We see a life so different from our own, and what survival and nature look like up close, as the book raises bigger questions—“about the role of solitude, about the value of suffering, about the diversity of human needs.” (The New York Times)

How to Be Alone (The School of Life) by Sara Maitland

This book sings the praises of solitude and gives us a historical and cultural perspective on how it’s been viewed over time, as well as the author’s personal experiences with it. It will come in handy to those who struggle with the idea of being alone and reminds us of what can be gained from it.

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

This revealing and raw personal account doesn’t shy away from some of the challenges that come along with solitude—of depression and loneliness and despair. But the author also illuminates how growth, self-discovery and poetry can come from our darker places, and how the opportunity to delve into them is best when we’re alone.

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