If you think Sartre was right on when he wrote “hell is other people,” or if you could just use a little solitude this holiday season, in between the office parties and festive traffic jams, you might enjoy these seven books that celebrate the joys of being alone.
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Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods and lived in it for two years, two months, and two days. His notes about his time there resulted in this classic of solitude literature. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Contrary to what you may have heard about Thoreau, he doesn’t advocate for complete isolation from fellow humans—there’s a section called “Visitors,” and he writes, “I am naturally no hermit.” Indeed, he would stop in town to have his mom do his laundry and enjoy dinner with friends during his span in the wilderness. But he still took time to enjoy more solitude than most people ever get to experience, and wrote about it with stirring grace.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey
Abbey’s 1968 classic of leave-me-alone literature is a bracing, thought-provoking, and lovely celebration of time in the wilderness. Abbey chronicles his years as a park ranger at Arches National Monument during the 1950, writing “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity—I generally prefer to go into places no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
In this gorgeous memoir, Laura Bell writes in spare, honed prose about growing up a loner in Kentucky before leaving to join her sister on a paleontological dig in Wyoming in 1977 when she was 22. She stayed in Wyoming, becoming a shepherd in the Big Horn Basin. This solitary profession appealed to Bell in part because it was like her “childhood’s private world blown larger than life, with a horse, two dogs, a rifle, a wilderness.” She writes, “I had discovered a place where no one expected me to do or be much of anything. My fellow coworkers were tender alcoholics, muttering derelicts, societal rejects, and I had found a certain delicious comfort in their company.” Bell later becomes a ranch hand, wife, mother, and masseuse, but always retains her attentiveness to nature and her joy in being alone.
Point of Direction by Rachel Weaver
People looking for solitude have been known to head to Alaska, America’s least densely populated state. Anna, the protagonist of Rachel Weaver’s sharp literary thriller, takes that quest for solitude one step further when she agrees with her boyfriend Kyle’s plan to buy a $1 lease from the Coast Guard and live over the winter in an Alaskan lighthouse overlooking a forbidding channel. Anna hopes that being alone with Kyle in the lighthouse will help them bond and help her finally overcome her trauma over a glacier-hiking expedition she led that ended badly. In short, things do not go as planned.
The Lives of Rocks by Rick Bass
Rick Bass has made a career out of writing about characters enjoying the solitude of the wilderness. Many of them live in Montana’s isolated Yaak Valley, where Bass lived for many years. One of his most exquisite odes to solitude—but not too much of it—is the title story of this collection, about a woman who has always been at home living alone in her cabin, until she returns to it after treatment for cancer. She finds a need to connect from time to time with others, and whittles little boats she sends down the stream where she’s sure the children who live nearby will find them. They do, and begin a unique friendship.
Changing Light by Nora Gallagher
Nora Gallagher’s sensitive and lovely debut novel takes place in 1945, when a painter named Eleanor Garrigue moves to New Mexico from New York. She wants to escape the orbit of her husband, a powerful figure in the art world, and make her own art. As she paints in solitude, she befriends a physicist working on a top-secret project in Los Alamos. The plot cranks up the tension, but the prose revels in the solitude of the New Mexico landscape: “The snow had melted almost entirely, except under the pinions, where it lay like white skirts thrown down on the damp earth. Everything was still. The black mesa to the west seemed more deeply fixed in the earth, and the trees on the hills nearby were motionless, stiff with cold. Her garden looked as if a great hand had passed over it, quelling its growth.”
The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko
In The Turquoise Ledge, Silko writes with love about her desert home near Tucson, where she lives in perfect solitude except for her pets and the desert creatures who visit her. She respects rattlesnakes, freeing them when they are trapped in her house. This book is a meandering narrative, part naturalist’s journal, part memoir. Silko writes about her Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican, and European heritage, and about an annoying neighbor she calls “machine man,” who uses construction vehicles to dislodge boulders from their desert surroundings in public land so he can use them on his private property. But much of the book details Silko’s joyous walks in nature, where she might spot a beautiful cloud and declare, “Ah what a beauty you are. Just look at you!”