In the years before children entered my life I survived a commute of several hours each day into London. Squashed into the corners of overground and underground trains, I think perhaps books saved me — both from myself, and from the passengers I often spent time watching, listening to, or trying desperately to ignore.
I read everything and anything — from best-selling novels, to classic literature, and a variety of banned books. A voyage of literary curiosity. Along the way, and quite predictably given my situation, a favourite subject became loneliness.
I suppose it’s no surprise that numerous authors have explored loneliness in their writing — we are often fed the fantasy of the lone writer, excluding themselves from the world to work on their masterpiece. I suppose I also find loneliness interesting, because of all the emotions it is perhaps the most contrary — we can impose it on ourselves, and it can be imposed upon us. We can experience it while separated from those we know, and in the middle of a busy crowd.
I have listed below some of the books I have read that cross paths with loneliness in some way, shape, or form. I’ve read them all, and would encourage you to read them too. They will change your world.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman
A triumph of deft observation of everyday life. By turns laugh-aloud funny and deeply poignant, it is a book that champions everyday courage and the importance of friendship in a world where people are increasingly isolated. Challenging the stigmas that exist around loneliness in contemporary society, it is a gentle reminder of those we too easily overlook and how a life can be changed by small acts of kindness.
The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall
The Well of Loneliness tells the story of tomboyish Stephen, who hunts, wears trousers and cuts her hair short — and who gradually comes to realise that she is attracted to women. Charting her romantic and professional adventures during the First World War and beyond, the novel provoked a furore on first publication in 1928 for its lesbian heroine and led to a notorious legal trial for obscenity. Hall herself, however, saw the book as a pioneer work and today it is recognised as a landmark work of gay fiction.
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, by Richard Yates
First published in 1962, a year after Revolutionary Road, this sublime collection of stories seems even more powerful today. Out of the lives of Manhattan office workers, a cab driver seeking immortality, frustrated would-be novelists, suburban men and their yearning, neglected women, Richard Yates creates a haunting mosaic of the 1950s, the era when the American dream was finally coming true — and just beginning to ring a little hollow.
All the Lonely People, by Mike Gayle
In weekly phone calls to his daughter in Australia, widower Hubert Bird paints a picture of the perfect retirement, packed with fun, friendship and fulfilment. But Hubert Bird is lying. The truth is day after day drags by without him seeing a single soul. Until, that is, he receives some good news — good news that in one way turns out to be the worst news ever, news that will force him out again, into a world he has long since turned his back on. Now Hubert faces a seemingly impossible task: to make his real life resemble his fake life before the truth comes out.
The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker
A Dutch woman rents a remote farm in rural Wales. She says her name is Emilie. She has left her husband, having confessed to an affair. In Amsterdam, her stunned husband forms a strange partnership with a detective who agrees to help him trace her. They board the ferry to Hull on Christmas Eve. Back on the farm, a young man out walking with his dog injures himself and stays the night, then ends up staying longer. Yet something is deeply wrong. Does he know what he is getting himself into?
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity. Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational — as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.