The Books Briefing: The Many Sides of Loneliness

Time alone can offer a restorative pause; it can also just feel lonely: Your weekly guide to the best in books

person reading
Alex Majoli/Magnum

I’m alone now much more than I used to be. I cook alone, work alone, and occasionally walk alone. The pandemic has limited my social life and forced me into a period of isolation, just as it has for so many others. Sometimes this solitude feels like a restorative pause; other times it just feels lonely.

Literature can capture the breadth of these experiences. Some writers explore the nature of solitude by focusing on those living extremely isolated lives. The journalist Michael Finkel profiled a hermit who lived entirely alone for 27 years (excluding one encounter with a passerby) in The Stranger in the Woods. In the fictional The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, the novelist Nicolai Houm also follows a solitary character—this time a creative-writing professor who ends up isolated in the Norwegian wilderness. In other books, writers explore more uncommon experiences with aloneness. Ruminative works that combine elements of fiction and memoir by writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Chris Kraus feature narrators who emphasize their distance from other people. The novelist Amy Tan says that she writes strong characters by focusing on their uniqueness—all the factors that make them different from others.

Kristen Radtke’s upcoming book Seek You: Essays on American Loneliness covers a broad range of these lonely experiences. In 2018, the author asked people about the loneliest they’d ever felt. The answers, some of which are excerpted in The Atlantic, are quietly sad, showing the emptiness of moments without companionship.

​Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a man sitting in the woods


Lessons of the hermit

The Stranger in the Woods … combines an account of [Christopher] Knight’s story with an absorbing exploration of solitude and man’s eroding relationship with the natural world.”

book cover for "The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland"


The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland casts an unlikely spell

“Nicolai Houm’s third novel unspools the mystery of a writer who abandons fiction and winds up alone on the top of a mountain in Norway.”

illustration of a flashlight


The new fiction of solitude

“To judge by some of the most critically acclaimed and influential novels of recent years, a diverse group of younger novelists have little interest in becoming specialists in empathy. They tackle a variety of subjects in their fiction, but they share a ruminative first-person voice given to self-expression more than to distinct characterization.”

page in a book


Amy Tan’s lonely, ‘pixel-by-pixel’ writing method

“[Writers] focus on what makes individuals unique. To create convincing fiction, Tan feels she must ‘look microscopically’: Her characters grow out of the singular details, impressions, and secrets they share with no one else.”

📚 The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan
📚 “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman

illustration of many faces


What’s the loneliest you’ve ever felt?

“In real life, loneliness … [runs] into notions of self-reliance and the attendant bootstrap-pulling, frontier-conquering, and make-it-on-your-own ideologies that are the foundation of what might be called ‘American’ values. Americans are supposed to have their own space, their own rooms, their fences dividing them from the neighbors. Americans do things themselves.”

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