If there is one group of people who understood the impulse to retire from society now and again—it would be readers and writers. If for any reason you don’t have time to check into a hermitage for three months, here are a five books that will provide a few hours of reclusive relief.
1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau – It should be stated up front that Thoreau was neither a recluse nor a hermit. Walden Pond was (and is) a heavily-visited site and the pages of Walden are populated with Irish laborers, Concord farmers and ice harvesters, many of whom Thoreau enjoyed chatting with. But two years at the pond offered Thoreau the necessary solitude to live deliberately, study and write his masterpiece (A great biographical resource on Thoreau is the book Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.).
2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe – Crusoe’s island solitude was the result of a shipwreck, and not his own choosing, but it’s not hard to fantasize about the delights of your very own tropical island and a buddy like Friday to hang out with (sans cannibals of course). Today we might even call it a YA novel.
3. Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac – This autobiographical novel describes the three months Kerouac spent alone as a fire lookout on a remote tower in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in the 1950s. Kerouac had hoped to kick alcohol and have a Buddhist spiritual awakening, but instead he found only emptiness (in the negative western sense) and wrote, quite tragically, “my mind is in rags.” And while it chronicles a dark time for Kerouac, there are also some exquisite descriptions of nature as well as passages about Beat get-togethers in San Francisco.
4. Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner – The narrator of this book, an American poet in Spain on a prestigious literary fellowship, is strictly speaking not isolated—he has a girlfriend and attends political rallies and gives poetry readings—but the book perfectly captures how one can be isolated by a foreign language, unfamiliar cultural mores, drug use and by the inability to “feel” anything (This novel is also brilliant and hilarious, which must be pointed out).
5. The Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux – This is the spiritual autobiography of a teenage Catholic nun in a 19th Century Carmelite nunnery in France. St. Therese describes her upbringing and social relations in the nunnery, but the core of the book is her relationship to God, and the discovery of her famous “little way” of spirituality. This book and the life of St. Therese captivated Thomas Merton during his own spiritual search, a fact he describes in the book The Seven Storey Mountain.