This post was originally written for The Startup.
Some of these books will make you feel less alone. Some will show you the value of solitude and cut through the stigma surrounding spending time alone. Some will show you how to get the most out of your alone time. Some will show you how to grab a moment of calm in the midst of your hectic life. Some will warn you of the danger of pulling too far away from the world.
Here are a dozen books about solitude all introverts should read once.
Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness — Joe Moran
“And just as the natural world needs unlovely things such as peat bogs and earthworm colonies to maintain its equilibrium, so perhaps the world needs the shy too — the bold, and all shades in between that make up the delicately balanced ecosystem of human behaviour.”
Not all introverts are shy and not all shy people are introverts, but there’s inevitably an overlap. Sometimes shyness pushes us towards solitude and sometimes solitude pushes us towards shyness.
This book is about the strangeness of shyness. We’re social creatures. Our survival depends on our ability to band together and serve each other. So why are so many people shy? Why do so many of us feel full of alarm around others? Joe Moran holds that shyness is part of the human condition, not a break from it.
The shy suffer not because of their shyness, but because the world refuses to accept them as they are.
Shrinking Violets explores the lives of a number of famously retiring people, from Agatha Christie to Nick Drake and the way it informed and shaped their work.
Ultimately, he concludes that the shy have a gift: they get to see the world in an unconventional way, from the outside. This gives them the insight that might explain why so many creative people are shy. Yet he also acknowledges that:
“Eventually most of us come to see that our feelings of unbelonging are unexceptional, and that the truly heroic act is to carry on trying to connect with others, even if it can be dispiriting to keep doing something you are not very good at.”
Continuing to try, no matter how hard it proves to be, is an act of courage. Shyness is not a death sentence and it’s up to us to work with it, instead of conceding defeat.
Solitude — Anthony Storr
“The human spirit is not indestructible, but a courageous few discover that, when in hell, they are granted a glimpse of heaven.”
The psychologist Anthony Storr is one of my favourite writers and this is an exquisite book. We’re often led to believe that rich relationships are the very meaning of life and that we can never find true happiness without partners, close friends, and lots of time around others. But that leaves those of us who struggle to connect to others feeling like there’s something wrong with us, like we’re abnormal and must quash our urges to be alone.
In this book, Storr argues that relationships are not the only key to happiness and many of us find satisfaction in other places, namely our work and creative expression. He examines the lives of notable introverts who led solitary lives by choice or circumstance, including Beatrix Potter, Beethoven and Edward Gibbon (in a different book, Storr also points out that the majority of history’s greatest scientists never married or had children, their work serving as a substitute.)
Storr views the ability to be alone as a sign of emotional maturity, not immaturity, as has long been the dominant view in psychology. Blame Freud. He doesn’t fail to emphasise that relationships are still important, instead branching out beyond them to consider others means of fulfilment.
Later in the book, he considers the way we use solitude as a coping mechanism (e.g. after a bereavement or while meditating), before contrasting this with the ways it serves as a punishment (namely, solitary confinement.) He concludes that willfully chosen solitude is a crucial part of the creative life and one we should sensibly embrace if it suits us.
The Book of Silence — Sara Maitland
“ This idea, that we feel ourselves to be happy and fulfilled only when we are interacting with other people, creates a dissonance with the equally popular mythology that stresses individual autonomy and personal rights.”
After living a noisy life surrounded by family and friends, Sara Maitland decided to pursue silence as an end in itself, not merely as an escape. This book tracks several years she spends looking for silence, ranging from trips to islands and deserts, to spends months alone in a home she builds on a moor.
As she describes her own journey into silence, she contextualises her experiences alongside those of others who have done the same throughout history: the desert fathers, anchorites, religious figures, wilderness explorers and so on. Maitland also dives into the way long-term silence affects us physically and psychologically and reiterates (as many of the authors on this list do), the crucial distinction between voluntary and involuntary solitude.
The book is friendly and conversational and reads more like an invitation to follow along than a guidebook. Her writing has a particularly unique warmth.
Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto — Anneli Rufus
“We do not choose to have such tiny fuel tanks. They can be quite inconvenient. That is why we seem rude when we do, why we seem bored and often are. Spaced out and often are. Running on empty. Not heartless. Not heartless. Not unappreciative. Not fools. We know the rest of the world has big tanks. We know they don’t know.”
I don’t love the way this book is written (large chunks of it come across as snobby and elitist, with the underlying assumption that being a loner makes you better than everyone else), but I do appreciate the overall message. The word ‘loner’ doesn’t exactly have many positive connotations and perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s just one letter away from ‘loser.’ Serial killers, perpetrators of mass shootings, terrorists and paedophiles are almost without exception describes as loners. It’s treated as a dirty word, an insult. If you’re a loner, there must be something about you that pushes others away, it can’t be that you’ve chosen to remain as a party of one.
This book is intended as a manifesto for proud loners, for whom introversion is a character trait, not a failing. Like many of the authors listed here, Rufus spends much of the book cataloguing examples of well-known, creative loners, from Emily Dickinson to Descartes. Aside from the endless generalisations and repetition, there are some illuminating passages that argue in favour of loners.
Touching The Void — Joe Simpson
“Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in?”
We’ve all felt alone at some point. Even the most gregarious extroverts have their brushes with loneliness. But few people will ever experience the sense of being absolutely and utterly alone and helpless in the same way Joe Simpson has.
As a young mountaineer, Simpson found himself alone on the side of a mountain with broken bones and no supplies, after his climbing partner cut a rope to save his own life. The betrayal, the pain, the cold, the physical exhaustion, dehydration and confusion combine to create an unimaginable sort of isolation as he somehow winds his way back down the mountain.
For another, less teeth-clenching book about a solo journey, I recommend The Voyage Alone In The Yawl Rob Roy by John MacGregor.
Hunger — Hamsun Knut
“ These people that I met — how lightly and merrily they bobbed their bright faces, dancing their way through life as if it were a ballroom.”
A warning: this is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. It’s not horror, it’s not gory, it’s not violent, yet as I read it in a park on a sunny day, I found myself shivering uncontrollably. In this semi-autobiographical novel published in 1890, the unnamed protagonist paces the streets of Kristiania (now Oslo), starving and alone, attempting to make a living as a writer.
His days are split into two parts: solitude and interactions. Alone, he talks to himself, makes grand plans for his future, and lauds his own classy intellect — even as he sinks into the depths of poverty. Sat in parks or cemeteries, he writes articles, plays and essays. Each seems like the greatest thing ever written and he’s sure it will make him rich. His writing fills him with tremendous self-confidence.
But that confidence rarely survives even the briefest conversation. Each time he talks to someone, anyone — shopkeepers, a pawnbroker, old men, landladies, the police, editors — it ends the same way. He lies compulsively, attempts to portray himself as some important figure, is ashamed of his visible poverty, and grows irrationally angry at nothing. Afterwards, he’s furious at himself for behaving that way. And yet he can’t stop. His life grows lonelier and lonelier as he forces himself to stop needing the presence of other people.
If you enjoy Hunger, I’d also suggest reading Martin Eden, perhaps Jack London’s least well-known book that covers similar themes. It’s about the isolation of being a young writer in an unforgiving world, struggling to turn your life into art and to find a way to survive the endless failures and rejections.
How To Be Alone — Sara Maitland
“ You are one of those courageous people who want to dare to live; and to do so believe you have to explore the depths of yourself, undistracted and unprotected by social conventions and norms.”
Following on from A Book of Silence, this is a shorter book from the School of Life series (which I love and have almost read in its entirety) about the art of finding solitude, no matter your circumstances.
Sara Maitland describes experiments and strategies for making friends with solitude (if it’s something you gravitate towards but are unaccustomed to) even if you can’t escape to the moor, such as pitching a tent in your backyard and spending a night there. She also talks about the importance of letting children spend time alone so they learn the skill early in life.
The Lonely City — Olivia Laing
“ The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakeable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.”
Moving to a new city (or even travelling there for a while) can be one of the most alienating and isolating experiences imaginable. All day, you’re surrounded by crowds of people, swamping you on the subway, in coffee shops, in the streets, as you wander. But when you get back to your apartment, close the door and pull the blinds, you feel like you might as well be stranded on a desert island hundreds of miles from anyone.
To be alone in a crowd is somehow the least pleasant type of solitude. You stand at your window and look out at the lights, at the traffic, at other people in their own homes, Rear Window style. Olivia Laing moved to New York for a relationship, only for it to disappear. Finding herself alone in the city, she opts to sink into and explore the experience instead of immediately rushing to escape it. She finds solace in the lives and works of several lonely artists, including Andy Warhol, Hopper, Valerie Solanas, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. She visits archival materials and the places they lingered, she inhabits their worlds and their attempts to escape loneliness.
This is what makes the book so fascinating. I’ve never had much interest in Warhol and previously had only a passing awareness of most of the other artists mentioned. Laing’s writing humanises them and sent me down delightful rabbit holes exploring their work. This might be my favourite book on this list.
Silence: In The Age of Noise — Erling Kagge
“ Only when I understood that I had a primal need for silence was I able to begin my search for it — and there, deep beneath a cacophony of traffic noises and thoughts, music and machinery, iPhones and snow ploughs, it lay in wait for me.”
Erling Kagge is a wilderness explorer whose exploits have taken him deep into the heart of silence, including a nearly two months long trip alone across Antarctica, on foot. There’s something special and frightening about the solitude people experience on these kinds of trips, hence his nuanced perception of the value of silence.
Kagge views inner silence as a necessity, but also a mirage. True silence doesn’t really exist — even in a sensory deprivation chamber, the sound of one’s heartbeat becomes deafening. Instead, we find stillness wherever we can:
“Standing in the shower, letting the water wash over your head, sitting in front of a crackling fire, swimming across a forest lake or taking a walk in a field: all of these can be experiences of perfect stillness too.”
Silence, Kagge writes, is not about turning away from the world, it’s about diving deeper into it and learning to see things with greater clarity and appreciation.
Walden — Henry Thoreau
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life”
The classic introvert’s favourite which I couldn’t not include here. I won’t say much about it, just that, as Adam Phillips puts it in Missing Out, some people ‘speak’ Walden and some don’t.
The Year of The Hare — Arto Paasilinna
“Sometimes conceiving an affection for an animal is easier than for a human.”
A journalist, Vatanen, is driving home from an assignment one night when his car collides with a little baby hare. He steps out, picks up the injured animal and for whatever reason, that precipitates his break from society. With the wild creature as his sole companion, Vatanen lives in the woods and attempts to learn to survive alone. He divorces his wife, sells his possessions and finds himself on a strange series of adventures. However hard he tries, someone is always breaking his solitude.
The book is unromantic: he kills animals to survive, encounters violence and destruction and the hare is never personified in any way. I think many introverts can relate to the sentiment about finding animals easier to relate to at times.
Into The Wild — Jon Krakauer
“ We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again.”
It’s safe to say that many introverts dream of escaping the world altogether, retreating into the wilderness and living alone. Finding that peace can seem like the antidote to the panic society can provoke in us.
Which is why it’s important to include this book in this list — it taught me that the dream of escaping everything should remain a dream because, ultimately, surviving by yourself isn’t the panacea it sounds like. It’s a warning, a eulogy, a celebration and an all-around beautiful piece of writing.
Silence (Object Lessons) — John Biguenet
“ The rest is an element of the composition, not a break from it.”
This book is part of a series on the hidden lives of ordinary things. John Biguenet explores the meaning and value of silence as an object in itself. He considers it’s different meanings.
Silence is a luxury commodity: just think of airport lounges or expensive cars. Silence is a weapon: think of a terrorist refusing to confess or the way we give people the silent treatment or how the oppressed are denied a voice. Silence is a blank canvas: think of a child’s doll or a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list and there are plenty of notable omissions, these are just 12 of the best books I’ve read that specifically talk about solitude and silence.