Books for lonely times

What to read when you're alone in a tent

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I grew up in a family of seven in a one-bathroom house, a ratio of humans to toilets that more than one of us kids used in college-application essays as proof of our ability to problem-solve. The walls were thin, and voices carried. Someone was always playing the piano. When we traveled, we ended up tangled in each other's limbs in the family van. We could not escape each other, even when we tried.

It is because of that growing-up, maybe, that I love to tie my bootlaces and head off alone for a day or a week into quiet country. I worked as a backcountry ranger because the job required solitude, and I once chose to spend the better part of a year holed up, hermit-like, in a cabin hours from anywhere. Sweet and rare, those solo moments, watching the day's last light fading on a far-off ridge.

But my sense of solitude is prone to quicksilver shifts into loneliness -- perhaps another result of having grown up in the constant company of a sprawling brood. The absence of others becomes a heaviness. Evenings in camp that at first felt kind then bleed into night, a long yawn of time pressing against the thin walls of a tent.

A friend says he was saved from this sort of loneliness by a book -- a thin volume of essays that kept him company during a long night at the bottom of a deep Utah canyon.

Books are my defense against loneliness, too, and I always carry more of them than I could possibly read, zipped into plastic bags against the rain. Here in no particular order are some voices that I have relied on for company during long nights under wide skies.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, 1998. Although it's filled with damp heat and alligators, this is no nature book. (In my experience, most nature-writing books are not the best thing to read when you're lonely in the woods.) If you learn anything about orchids from Orlean, it will likely be by accident. She's writing about a subculture of obsession, and about her own envy of the ability of one barely likeable man to become unhinged with passion.

River Teeth by David James Duncan, 1995. Duncan is best known for his first novel, The River Why, a long gymnastic coming-of-age tale involving fish and philosophy. River Teeth is something else entirely. Named for the last part of a tree to disintegrate in water -- the stubborn pitch-filled knots, where branches once met trunk -- it's a series of vignettes capturing those moments in life that remain vivid after the rest have faded. Some are true, others fiction. All are tiny punches to the gut, crafted with Duncan's rare twin senses of humor and wonderment.

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, 2003. LeBlanc spent more than 10 years following two women and their families in the Bronx. Their struggle with drugs and violence reads like a novel, but there is no better textbook on the prison of poverty.

The Meadow by James Galvin, 1992. Lyrical, ragged, hardscrabble: That's how critics describe this story about a piece of land in the Neversummer Mountains, on the border of Colorado and Wyoming, and the people who inhabit it over a century. Galvin is a poet who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the language in The Meadow is so lean and gorgeous that it's as much poetry as prose.

Levels of the Game by John McPhee, 1969. Pulitzer Prize-winner McPhee has written 30 books, and in each one of them, readers are treated to the companionship of a warm, smart writer with an unmatched ability to find meaning and wry humor in the details of things. In Levels of the Game, McPhee narrates a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. Proceeding point by point, the game becomes a window into the lives of the two players and into the state of race relations in America.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, 2007. The breathless story of one smart, sad boy and his cursed efforts to overcome geekiness and win love becomes, in Diaz's hands, a multigenerational family saga and an utterly digestible history of the Dominican Republic.

There are countless others, of course. Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains about do-gooder doctor Paul Farmer. This year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, it doesn't much matter when I turn to words for companionship in the woods -- as long as there is a genuine voice, a heartbeat other than my own.

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