Caveat: Not all who are alone are lonely. So all you extroverts who somehow stumbled on a book blog, just take a deep breath before you sneak up on some “poor” loner with his nose in a book. However, if you see a forlorn face behind the pages of one of these, maybe smile and say hello.
1. The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath seems like a person with a truckload of problems unless you learn something about Ted Hughes. It’s easy to point the finger at mental illness, but when both your wives opt out? There’s a dark, dark Sesame Street jingle waiting to be composed.
A person carrying this book is likely an English major. This is OK, because the life of an English major is riddled with disappointments, but he can always fall back on “At least I’m not Sylvia Plath” and feel pretty good about things.
An otherwise happy person who picks this up (due to an interest in the French intensive method, let’s say) will face one of two results: Either the book will be put down or the reader will wish he were.
Sad people, people going through breakups, people dating people named Ted, and all teenagers should avoid this book.
2. The Remains of the Day
This Ishiguro fellow is going to get a post all his own one day. He does loneliness like Phelps does water—effortless, smooth, and really fast. He wrote this one in four weeks. If you’ve seen the film, you may be thinking this is one where the book can’t possibly be better. Oh, but it is.
“I try to write unfilmable novels,” Ishiguro told the Economist. I would swear he succeeds, but there are filmmakers afoot who seem equal to the challenge.
If you don’t know the book or the film, imagine what it’s like to live a life of such structure and rigor that you never reveal your feelings, even to yourself.
Then you’re old.
3. White Nights
If you ever see a non-Russian person under the age of 80 reading Dostoevsky, you should do your best to separate the two of them. I was working on a Russian minor (as in secondary course of study, not as in underaged Belarusian) when the Russian realists drew into my crosshairs. “Do your worst!” I spat at the spectre of their chill threat. I powered through Karamazov. I held firm through Karenina. Dead Souls was just a bit of bureaucratic fluff. Rounding third and heading for home, I dusted off some of Fyodor’s short stories. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” hurt. It hurt bad, I won’t lie. Then this. I thought our man was tackling the same project, with a gentler hand. I thought I heard the distant strains of human resilience. Was that…hope?
No. It wasn’t.
Still today, I react to every disappointment—traumatic or trivial—with this line in my head:
“My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”
Extra tip for world leaders: Need to get the upper hand on Putin? Whip this line out on him. There’s no way he can stand the army of regrets that will rise to defeat him on that day. It’s his own personal Polonium-210.
4. The Dead
Feeling uncontrollably chipper? Need to take that spring out of your step before you hurt your back? Is your day just too dang sunny and there are no Russians about? James Joyce to the rescue!
This, too, is a short story because it is, apparently, too easy to depress humans. Take Victorian Dublin, a snowy feast of the Epiphany, a man named Gabriel, and his wife Regretta…er, Gretta, that is. Blend thoroughly, decant into a shotglass, and then plunge the whole thing into a foamy pint of “September 1913” and you get an exploding car bomb named the Death of Romantic Ireland.
Joyce plucks your innards out so beautifully, you’ll think you hear angels singing to the airs of a harp strung with your own catgut. Yes, Furey is buried, but the snow is never very deep on the old sod, is it?