I’m writing this post during a time of great fear. I am quite familiar with that emotion, and have spent the better part of my adult life attempting to assuage it. As institutions and events across the globe are being shuttered, we are all collectively finding ourselves with extra time alone. I know all about being alone.
As a child, my military family moved so much that I went to several schools in multiple states, moving sometimes in the middle of a year all throughout primary. In my teens, we moved to the rural Midwest where driving an hour to get to a city with a large grocery store was the norm, and where folks are no stranger to natural and economic disasters.
When I became a mother, I wanted to ensure my children had a greater sense of stability than I did, and I chose to homeschool them until they reached Jr. High age. During those years I worked from home and bootstrapped businesses that would end up supporting our home centered lifestyle.
While my children have entered school now, and my last business has been sold, I find I am once again adjusting from a move to yet another rural town where I’ve lived for three years, but still feel very much like an outsider. I have had even more time recently to live a solitary lifestyle.
When I am not maintaining my home and mothering my children, and generally keeping to myself, I prefer to spend my unstructured time reading. More recently, I’ve been writing an eerily prescient novel that depicts a character who undergoes a long period of isolation due to external global events beyond her control.
All of this is to say, I am uniquely qualified to share some book recommendations and do my small part (besides compulsively washing my hands) to help navigate the time alone we are all sure to face in the near future. What follows is a book list that I have categorized into nine sections for ease of perusal. I’ve written brief introductions about each book or given my reason for including them here, as it may not be obvious from their titles.
It might feel like it’s the end of the world as we know it, and sometimes we just need to allow ourselves to think about that. Set a timer and give yourself permission to worry for half an hour. When the timer is done, pick up a book that helps you feel like you can handle some of the worst case scenarios your mind cooked up and be empowered.
A few years after Katrina, a large storm ripped through my town and we were left without power for days. All of the downed trees made it fairly impossible to relocate my young family. This was just months before the financial crisis of 2008 and a lot of my reading during that time focused on living sustainably.
When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes by Cody Lundin I found to be oddly reassuring even though he touched on situations I hadn’t even dreamt of.
The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne makes a good case for ways you can be food secure in an urban area. The same goes with The Background Homestead by Carleen Madigan which gives step by step advice on how to fundamentally change a suburban home into a homestead.
Preserving Wild Foods by Matthew Weingarten is a good one to just keep nearby to help you feel safer and it’s a reminder that humans eat wild things.
Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes may come off as a bit privileged in places, but she again makes a sound case for why being home centered is a great way to live.
Possum Living by Dolly Freed might be my favorite book in this section. It is a cult classic and if you get nothing from the book other than the author’s indomitable can-do attitude it is worth the short read.
Maybe it’s raining outside and the day calls for fiction that plunges into the essence of aloneness. Inside this dark bookshelf you will see there are points of light that cast a strange glow.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a historical fiction novel based on the bubonic plague. Reviewers online decry it for being “dark”, but I found it to be very engaging.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson is a tight, consumable novel about strange sisters that keep to themselves in a small town full of harsh gossip that may harbor some grains of truth. The narrator is captivating.
In Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers we are transported to a desert land in biblical times when war and plagues and famine were rampant, but also love when love and magic and mystery prevailed.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is a novel based on true hostage crisis events. The characters all reside in close proximity in the same villa for an extended period of time and make the best of a distressing situation.
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer changed my life. It is an intensely psychological last-woman-on-earth survival story that will shock you if you let it.
A decidedly more pleasant novel about being in perpetual political house arrest is Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow. The novel spans decades and it is a gift to read about how an individual can play the cards life deals them in graceful ways.
Quarantine by Jim Crace is fiction that explores Jesus’ time in the desert. It is not in any way Christian fiction, and it will leave you thinking about what it means to be alone for a long time.
It might take you one hundred years to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the magical realist depictions of a town that is cut off from the world and the bizarre family that built it will haunt your quiet moments at home.
Finally, I close this section with a biographical novel about embracing the great alone of existence. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse beautifully illustrates the life of The Buddha who chose to go far enough inside the luminous peace of his interior that it eventually shone out over the whole earth.
SOLITUDE NOT ISOLATION
In my mind, there is quite a difference between solitude and loneliness or isolation, but that dichotomy is all in mindset. These nonfiction selections may help you get to the other much brighter side of isolation.
Pond by Claire Louise Bennet is a quirky book that explores what it’s like to live as a single woman in a quaint cottage who has sequestered herself to write. I thoroughly enjoyed the mental dialogue she has with herself.
Michael Harris wrote a book called Solitude: In Pursuit of A Singular Life that makes valid researched points about the physical, spiritual, and mental health benefits of solitude.
Either by predisposition or trauma, or both, some of us just want to be alone. The Stranger in The Woods: The Incredible Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel accounts for an interesting modern day life scenario.
The Story of My Heart by Richard Jeffries is probably second only to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in its transcendental exploration of the self in relation to the vastness of our universe.
Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard is a collage of writing about both physical and mental space and the cultivation of both. It is perhaps best read in slowly in smaller to digest bits in order to appreciate.
HEALTHY AT HOME
It is not only our duty as this time of crisis to keep healthy, but it can also by joyful and above all feel doable even with limited resources.
Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable, Nesting Skills by Raleigh Briggs is an adorable little book with wonderful tips on natural cleaning.
Eat to Beat Disease by William W. Li is extensive and a bit technical, but much of the focus of this book is on eating foods that boost natural immunity. His website has a useful PDF to download for food lists at a glance.
How to Stay Sane by Phillipa Perry is short, to the point, and a little sweet. It’s perfect for dipping a toe in maintaining good mental health.
Hygge is a word that means all things cozy and it gets tossed around online every fall when we in the northern hemisphere find it pleasant to retreat to the indoors. You might not be feeling it now, but these books may illicit all the cozy stay at home feels you need to help you being to love your time in seclusion.
The Private World of Tasha Tudor by Tasha Tudor is a gorgeously photographed coffee table type book about the home life an outrageously endearing children’s book author/illustrator who dressed and lived her life like it was the 1830s. Everything appears to be a dreamworld, but she truly lived that way until she died in 2008! Once this crisis is over and we can all travel and vacation again, I’d love to visit her home in Vermont.
Jeanne Rose’s Kitchen Cosmetics by Jeanne Rose will have you treating your skin, hair , and soul with inexpensive and edible beauty potions you can make yourself.
I can personally cannot think of anything more cozy than the smell of baking bread wafting through my home. Artisan Bread in Five MInutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg is easy to understand and you’ll have a little extra “chore” to look forward to in your daily routine.
The Art of Family: Rituals, Imagination and Everyday Spirituality by Gina Bria advocates ideas to keep your family centered and feeling included and loved, and there is no better time to start creating new traditions at home.
Speaking of traditions, All Year Round: A Calendar of Celebrations by Ann Druitt, Chrystine Fynes-Clinton and Marjie Rowling is wonderful for parents or caretakers of young children who need an abundance of wholesome nature based activities to keep busy and joyful. Many of the supplies for the celebrations could be found in your backyard.
In such times as these, it is a good idea to have principles to hang your coat on when you may not be functioning at an optimal level. These mostly secular suggestions could stoke the flames of your personal ideology in spite of cancelled congregations.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is one to read and re-read. It may feel quite uncomfortable to radically accept the present moment, but this book helps you trust that on the other side of that is peace and wellbeing.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosopher’s User Manual by Ward Farnsworth isn’t exactly a spiritual text, but a great intro to stoic philosophy. Stoicism is likened to an operating system and is not centered in anything esoteric. The general gist is to focus on what you can control in life and let go of what you can’t. There is a lot more to it and this is a great way to learn more.
I went through a particularly dark depression a couple of years ago and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl was so important in supporting me through that difficult time. The author survived the holocaust in WWII in a concentration camp. Friends, we are no where near that kind of awfulness at the time of this writing. Read it.
I only recently picked up The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton and I was enchanted by reading about the life of an American Catholic Monk and the spiritual distance he traveled from self-absorbed frat boy to cloistered convent in a Cistercian Monestary. It was surprisingly inspirational. The depictions of monastic life near the end of the book is worth trudging through the clunky first half.
PERSEVERANCE AND OPTIMISM
There is a Midwestern saying that goes “If you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” It’s easy to persevere through difficult times when you have the right attitude. When I read Rowing Without Oars by Ulla-Carn Lindquist I cried the entire time. Nothing put my life in perspective like this autobiographical account of a successful newscaster and mother who was diagnosed with ALS and her battle with the debilitating diagnosis.
The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska was life changing for me when I was in my 20s. A young Jewish girl is determined not to let her age, race, religion, gender or hunger stand in the way of doing the things that she wants.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a kind of bible. Open it up to a random page and you will find something uplifting to read. It is focused on writing, but so much of it can be applied to life.
Optimism by Helen Keller is a perennial favorite of mine. The case for optimism is clear coming from a woman who could not see or hear and somehow managed to be bursting with good news.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven came to me at a time when I felt very lost. I could, however, make my bed. That one act can be built upon to make changes throughout your life.
In The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, the challenge was to write short essays about something delightful every day for a year. It was an inspiring practice and is written from a poet’s perspective.
I find that feeling afraid can place an irrational emphasis on the importance of my own little life and it leaves no space for me to ask bigger questions. These books might help challenge a mind that is stuck in a rut and help change thought processes.
I read the Sci-Fi novel Contact by Carl Sagan as a young person before the movie came out and trust me when I say the movie pales in comparison. Yes, it’s about aliens, but more about thinking in unconventional ways.
Many Lives Many Masters by Brian Weiss is a wild ride. This is a nonfiction account of a psychiatrist that performs past life regression therapy with a patient and keeps copious recordings/notes.
Where ARE all the scientists and doctors who believe in an afterlife you may be asking yourself? Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander is the near death experience of a medical physician who tells about everything he saw while clinically dead.
The Light Between Us by Laura Lynne Jackson is the story of one psychic’s journey to self acceptance as her abilities are put through a set of rigorous blind tests.
CLASSICS FOR KIDS
If you’re waiting to hear if your child’s school is canceled like I am right now, it might be a good time to see if you can stock up on a couple of classics that feature solitary characters.
*Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is about a small family that live a self reliant life in the woods, miles away from their nearest neighbors.
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint Exupery is the epitome of the gift of imagination to the solitary soul.
Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scot O’Dell was one of my favorite books growing up. A girl is left on an island ans survives for years with only her culture’s traditions to save her.
*The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was a magical read for me when I was young. It is delicious for a child to be doing something they might get into trouble for later. Luckily, reviving a tangled garden is a transgression most adults could handle these days
I have read every single book on this list and am completely open to having thoughtful discussions about any of them. I can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and most other social media @FolktaleJess
** These books can be politically incorrect or insensitive in parts and I recommend screening before giving it to your child.