The Literature of Solitude
"Loneliness," says Maggie Nelson, "is solitude with a problem."
In a time of social distancing, here are some of our favorite books on solitude and not, we hope, loneliness.
Like an anti-Thoreau, the narrator of Pond, a novel-in-stories lives alone in the Irish countryside, quietly and cheerfully coming a little undone. Sensitive and deeply attuned to the world around her, Bennett's book reads a little like Lydia Davis, a little like Beckett. A one point, the narrator says that English is not her first language, that she has not yet discovered her mother tongue, and by the time I finished Pond I felt exactly the same way - tongueless, disquieted, all anew.
Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Edward Abbey, Philip Connors spent summers working as a fire lookout, waiting in his 7' x 7' perch, 10,000 feet above sea level, watching lightning strikes and scanning the massive forest for signs of smoke. In between patrols, he pecks away at his typewriter. The result is a melodic rumination on nature, an elegy for dwindling wilderness, and a moving portrayal of human vulnerabilities.
Thomas Merton, legendary Trappist monk and Kentucky mystic, published this book in 1960, a curated collection of sayings and stories about the desert hermits of the fourth and fifth centuries. He asks why one might abscond to the desert to live in solitude. He asks what salvation might look like. He asks how we might refashion the world. A profoundly consoling book for those who find themselves longing to be alone.
A more accurate title for this book might be: "How To Reconsider What It Means To Do Something." Far from advocating inaction, Odell makes an extremely convincing and quite profound case, using an omnivorous mix of philosophy, art history, and good old rumination, that we should start paying attention to what we pay attention to, and to how that attention shapes, and limits, the scopes of our lives. Reading this book, I began to notice how I interact with the bodies around me—bird, tree, human, creek, neighborhood—and how paying them fuller attention might make me a better person, both happier and more truly alive.
Rebecca Solnit will force you to reconsider what an essay can do. Her writing in this collection is frighteningly clever and moves from Hitchcock to women's underwear to snakes to Yves Klein Blue with effortless ease, mirroring the circuitous, tangential way we speak and think (or at least the way I speak and think) in a way which is deeply comforting. This is the book I have given as a gift most often, and which I return to whenever I feel like the world and I aren't on speaking terms.
Lolly Willowes is a middle-aged spinster of the old-school variety, who all of a sudden in the mid-1920s decides to abandon her relations in London, and up and move to a forest in the Chilterns. There, she becomes a witch. This is one of the best books I have read about women in nature, and women and their aloneness - there's not a love story to speak of. Women, says Lolly to Satan one evening, "know they are dynamite" and simply long for "the concussion that may justify them." Is that not still a universal truth?