The Books Briefing: The Part of Human Nature That Bends Toward Solitude

A tour of places to be alone: Your weekly guide to the best in books

The craft of writing is often associated with solitude; silent contemplation, the reasoning goes, can sprout potent ideas and feelings. Writers find this isolation in many different circumstances, which all translate to the page in striking ways.

Annie Dillard is one of the best-known explorers of the part of human nature that bends toward solitude. In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she surveys life in a teeming natural ecosystem, where she seems to transcend her suburban surroundings. The poet Dulce María Loynaz is said to have lived alone for decades in a mansion in Havana, producing many rich poems about the treasure and trouble of solitude.

The family in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude experiences a collective isolation. They maintain little to no contact with the outside world in their small town for an extended period of time, which serves their clan well for a while. The married couple in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila show that internal isolation isn’t necessarily overcome by even the closest of human bonds. But the main character in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, in spite of the isolation brought on by his severe illness, finds that his singular torment grants him the ability to witness the suffering of all.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

How One Hundred Years of Solitude became a classic
“Over the course of a century, [the] town of Macondo was the scene of natural catastrophes, civil wars, and magical events; it was ultimately destroyed after the last Buendía was born with a pig’s tail.”

📚 One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

The pilgrim of the suburbs
“The book raises questions about the horrors and beauties of nature, and the power of the present moment in a world that’s constantly being created. It’s also a chronicle of solitude.”

📚 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Making art at the painful margins
“Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Idiot … manages like no other to plunge fearlessly into suffering while at the same time illuminating the enduring, almost unspeakable beauty of the human.”

📚 The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
📚 Island of the Mad, by Laurie Scheck

The power of grace
“In these pages, Robinson resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain.”

📚 Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

How solitude feeds the brain
“I love the idea of solitude being a gift. I think we can be afraid of being lonely, but if you figure out a way to own it and see it as a treasure and a pleasure and a joy, then it can be quite comforting.”

📚 Absolute Solitude, by Dulce María Loynaz
📚 All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attenberg

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

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About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s finally going to read is All About Love, by bell hooks.

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