Some of the best books I have read were during times of solitude, usually while living overseas, isolated from those who shared my language and my culture, and sometimes during some of the loneliest days of my life. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about reading literature in solitude, separated from everything and everyone familiar to you, that makes the experience so different compared to reading in the comfort of your home, close to loved ones, and within minutes from someone who speaks your language and knows your customs.
So in no particular order, based off my traveling days living in a variety of countries (Kyrgyzstan, South Korea, Slovakia, and South Africa to name a few), here are my top five books to read in solitude, for it is only in solitude that you can truly appreciate the power of these authors and their words:
1. The River Why by David James Duncan. You definitely do not have to be a fly fisherman or fisherwoman to enjoy this book because God knows, I have never fly fished in my entire life, and yet this is one of the most memorable novels I have ever read. The sport of fly fishing is simply part of the story, and not the story itself. Mixed with a bit of humor and a lot of philosophy, this novel really makes you think about the good, bad, and ugly in life and what it is that makes us imperfect but incredible human beings.
2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Thanks to Hollywood and Broadway, this has become an internationally recognized classic, familiar even to the younger version of me who first discovered this novel while serving in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan after spending my entire life in Midwest USA. If you’ve seen the musical or the movie but have never read the book, you must read it now. And if you ever get a chance to read this book while outside your home country, whether on vacation or living overseas, add this to your traveler’s reading list. Most of us already know how this story begins and ends so no commentary is needed, but when you read its words while in a foreign land, in a setting unfamiliar to what you know, surrounded by people completely different from where you come from, something magical happens. There is simply no other way to describe it.
3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Lyrical, mystical, enchanting…these are just a few words I can think of to describe this novel. Rushie’s written words, as one Amazon reviewer accurately described, are simply “delicious,” and the story itself is a prime example of “magical realism” set against the backdrop of historical significance in India — Independence Day.
4. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. I was living in Bratislava, Slovakia when I read this book. I am not Jewish, and while I am familiar with the religion, there is much I do not know about Judaism. When I read this book, I knew nothing about Hassidic Jewish life, which is what attracted me to this novel in the first place. Reading this opened my mind to not only a different way of life I knew nothing about, but also to a perspective that was more familiar to me than I expected, being a Roman Catholic. At my recommendation, my Jewish flatmate in Slovakia read this book once I finished and was so impacted by it, that we’d spend hours in Old Town Bratislava cafes discussing the story. What memories!
5. Richard Hittleman’s Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan. Yes, this is different from the other books on this very short list, but it’s just as significant, especially for the solitary reader and even more so for the solitary reader living overseas. When I read this book, I was living in a conservative Muslim country where women could not safely exercise outdoors. I was involuntarily subsisting on a winter diet of potatoes, bread, fatty meat, tea sweetened by sugar beets, and cheap noodles, and while my body was craving eggs and veggies, they were still a few months away from becoming seasonal. I was overweight and frustrated at my inability to live an active life due to the cultural norms of my host country, so my mother, God bless her, sent me this book all the way from the United States. While it was published when I was just a toddler, it was a lifesaver to me in my twenties, a time when I was supposed to be at my physical peak. Even today, it can be a life saver to anyone of any age because its exercises are simple, can be done privately in a small room, and can have a tremendous affect on one’s physical and mental well-being. While yoga is often done communally, it can also be done individually as well. That is the beauty of this exercise and thus the beauty of this book.
So there you have it: five books that got me through some of my most challenging, magical, loneliest times. Books that in many ways, enriched and saved my life. And I hope they do the same for you.