The words social distancing have already defined 2020, and everyone is already tired of them (and coronavirus, for that matter). Despite how terrible it feels to not be close to people, this is what community care looks like right now. Luckily, books still exist, and can be their own vehicle for connection. And what better reading material for right now than books where the characters are, in some way, alone? None of these are dystopian (at least not in the traditional sense), but are instead characterized by protagonists with complex interior lives who are either isolated (in some way that’s not about a contagion) or fiercely independent, or both. Happy introverting, readers!
“My Morningless Mornings” by Stefany Anne Golberg
If you’re ready to get cerebral while also being hypnotized by prose, this slim memoir is perfect. Golberg writes about isolating herself in the night, rejecting the world’s attachment to day. The dark brings on all kinds of meditation on psychology, death, art and what it means to be awake. This might be the ultimate quarantine read.
“I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive” by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Alice Walker
Hurston was the ultimate independent woman and one of the greatest writers who ever touched a pen. This collection was the first Hurston reader, edited by Walker and published in the 1970s. This winter, The Feminist Press at CUNY gave it a new cover and a new introduction by Mary Helen Washington, but the work remains singular: Hurston wrote in vernacular, she was driven by her curiosity, she was tenacious and self-determined. While much of her work is very much about community, it, like her, in many ways stands alone.
“Letters from Tove” and “The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson
Jansson — the reclusive, queer Finnish creator of the Moomin characters, who died in 2001 — has lots of books to choose from, but these two are a great start. She wrote hundreds of letters to her friends, romantic interests, family and colleagues, and this compilation spans six decades, from 1932-1988. “The Summer Book,” originally published in 1972, perfectly captures a Nordic summer from the point of view of a young girl who is staying in a cabin with her grandmother and father. Jansson’s work shows both her physical isolation and her total connectedness, and both of these books are full of joy and thoughtfulness.
“Real Life” by Brandon Taylor
In Taylor’s debut novel, Wallace is an introvert, a Southern-raised gay man and the only Black student in his Midwestern Ph.D. program’s cohort. “Real Life” is a campus novel, leveled up. Wallace grapples with waves of internal and external emotion in the weekend over which the novel takes place, including grief, anger, lust and exhaustion. Though the book’s prose and protagonist are quiet and contemplative, the narrative is full of reckoning, violence and exploration of what it means to live in a body — and, specifically, the body of a Black gay man in American academia.
“Just An Ordinary Woman Breathing” by Julie Marie Wade
Seattle-born writer Wade’s latest book is a collection of lyric essays/coming-of-age memoir that is acutely rooted in her own body. An only child raised with the feminine ideals of Hollywood by Protestant parents who sent her to a Catholic school, Wade is also a lesbian and a poet. All of these facets of identity lend to a deeply interior narrative that simultaneously tethers itself to broad exploration of society at large.
“Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang (out April 14)
This book was a sensation in South Korea when it was originally published there in 2016. Following the life of the titular character from her mother’s generation through her own childhood, young adulthood, career, marriage and eventual “breakdown,” the book moves around in time to subtly uncover how patriarchy eats away at the psyches and bodies of women, starting before they’re even born.
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