For the solitary dreamers who tend to live inside their own heads, books have always been cherished companions. In reading, introverts can indulge their need for a respite from socializing; even better, they can live vicariously through the characters on the pages, sharpening their powers of observation in a forum where they won’t be called upon to get involved.
Perhaps that’s why many writers, who, almost by definition, spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts, have captured the essence of introversion so vividly. While books can allow introverts to enter into the minds of gregarious extroverts and natural-born charmers, sometimes there’s comfort in seeing your own lone-wolf tendencies reflected in literature.
What are those tendencies? According to Susan Cain, the author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, there is some disagreement over the specifics, but introversion isn’t exactly the same thing as being shy or quiet; rather, introverts are people who tend to:
- Prefer quiet situations
- Prefer a small group of close friends
- Consider decisions carefully and think before speaking
- Work slowly and deliberately; concentrate easily
- Dislike small talk but enjoy deep discussions
- Find excessive external stimulation, such as large groups of people or risky situations, overwhelming or tiring
- Recharge by spending time alone
Whether you’re a bred-in-the-bone introvert or a hardcore extrovert (or, like many of us, somewhere in between), here are 12 brilliant books you should read that capture what it can be like to be introverted:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Though the iconic image of Gatsby centers around a glittering, pulse-pounding party, Jay and the narrator, Nick, aren’t exactly party animals. If anything, Gatsby seems to be about two introverts lost in a world built for extroverts. Nick, who is quiet and observant, tends to remain in the background of social events, rarely speaking without a good reason. Though he becomes close to Jay Gatsby, he doesn’t evince much interest in the more marginal characters in the book (thus their marginality in the narrative). Meanwhile, Jay throws decadent parties and surrounds himself with socialites, but he clearly finds the events taxing and only wants to be alone with his beloved, Daisy. In fact, he’s been methodically working on a plan to win her back for years, and building castles in the air about the life they’ll have together. Gatsby beautifully captures what it can feel like to be the wallflower at the hoppin’ party.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane can be passionate and fiery when it comes to her rights as a person, but for the most part she’s a quiet, unobtrusive presence. Capable of forming profound attachments to others, she cares little for the company of those who are not among her chosen few loved ones. A stimulating conversation with her friend Helen or Mr. Rochester is more than enough to fill her with happiness, and larger social gatherings leave her cold. Jane enjoys her solitary time, dreaming wild dreams or working on paintings; though she isn’t a highly skilled artist, she plans her pieces carefully and executes them thoroughly. Much of Jane Eyre is spent inside Jane’s active, contemplative mind, an effect heightened by the fact that Brontë physically isolates Jane by mostly depicting her in rural settings where she rarely needs to interact with others. And though Jane seems to dream of far-off adventures, in reality she is frightened by the possibility of traveling to India as a missionary, and the lonely moors of England are more than enough for her as long as she's accompanied by a kindred spirit like Mr. Rochester.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The great detective uses cocaine and tobacco, chases adrenaline highs, and talks to strangers as part of his job: There’s no denying he has extraverted qualities. But his introverted ones are arguably more intense. His need to decompress for days or weeks after a thrilling case bespeaks a need to recharge in solitude; his hours of violin practice or couch-sprawling contemplation testify to his highly developed inner world, attraction to deliberate thought, and lack of need for socializing. While Holmes displays deep affection (very occasionally) for his flatmate and constant companion, Dr. Watson, he doesn’t seek other company -- even that of his own brother. Any introvert would feel a kinship with the Holmes recumbent on his couch for days after an active case has closed, smoking and thinking quietly.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
is an otherworldly-feeling tale of a family of women who are drawn to drifting. Not only does this book pass the Bechdel Test
, it charts familial discord between two introverts and the extrovert confused and frustrated by their socially detached behavior. Seen through the eyes of withdrawn, shy Ruthie, the novel vividly captures this feeling of social detachment. Those outside her tiny circle of loved ones are seen as if through water, distorted and muted. She, like her solitary aunt, thrills to the subtle beauties of nature and can happily be alone or nearly alone for hours, taking in her surroundings. School, meanwhile, is something of a trial. When her gregarious sister insists on being a part of the normal social world of the school and tries to fit in and gain approval from her comrades, Ruthie and their aunt are baffled. That possibility never seems desirable or even fully real to them, and the isolated, pensive tone of the book lulls readers throughout.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The futuristic dystopia of Super Sad True Love Story seems designed to make neurotic and introverted people twitch. The clamor of social media has risen to almost crushing levels, with books practically a relic of the past and most media conducted via word-salad-esque text or through video streams. Äppäräti, which resemble smartphones, also constantly send and receive data about the surrounding users -- how attractive they are compared to others present, how their credit score compares, how their personality compares -- and these crowdsourced ratings mean constant confrontation with how others perceive you, as well as constant pressure to improve your scores. In some ways this means a more disconnected society than ever, but it mostly seems like a society devoid of the sorts of quiet, deep friendships and contemplative moments that introverts tend to prefer. Instead, there’s nothing but noise and disruption. Even extroverts may feel the need for a respite from the information overload and relentless chatter in Shteyngart's dark future New York.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
In The New York Times' review of this enthralling novella, Anthony Doerr remarks
on the “lonesome” quality of the portrayal of the life of Robert Grainier, an orphaned Idaho logger who seems doomed to solitude. Mostly, however, Doerr emphasizes the length of the book: “The novella runs 116 pages, and you can turn all of those pages in 90 minutes. [...] Short stories and novellas ... offer writers a chance to affect readers more deeply because a reader can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience.” This fully immersive reading experience heightens the impact of the largely solitary existence of its main character, creating a muted tone and interiorized world that hints at the lifestyle of the hardcore introvert ... though Grainier himself may not appreciate all that alone time, as he slowly loses touch with reality through years of isolation.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Truly a world of pure imagination, this children's classic brings to life the surprising adventures of Milo, a little boy who never knows what to do with himself. Milo isn’t necessarily an introvert (or a very compelling character), but the imaginative quest upon which he sets out -- in which words are as tangible as food and abstract concepts come to life -- exemplify the joy of a rich inner world. The ever-popular book shows children that sitting quietly with a book or learning math concepts can be just as thrilling as a wild romp with mythical creatures, at least for those of us who don’t need the overstimulation of a real adventure. We may seem to just be sitting quietly alone, but actually we’re enjoying the company of our own off-the-wall thoughts.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Austen prized the deliberate, thoughtful hero and heroine, especially later in her writing career. Persuasion, her last completed book, attests to this. The novel follows Anne Elliot, a faded spinster in her late 20s who is constantly overshadowed by her bolder, louder family members. She lost her seemingly only chance at her own household when, as a young girl, she fell in love with the dashing young sailor Frederick Wentworth, but was persuaded to break off her engagement to him due to his poor financial prospects. As the years go by, Anne pines away, and her always-quiet nature makes her the outcast in her family and reduces her chances at new love. But when the newly successful Wentworth returns, we can’t help but hope that he will still see the beauty and worth in Anne’s reserved, pensive nature. Best of all, Persuasion actually celebrates the aspects of introversion that often make introverts unpopular.
The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson
The quintessential reclusive poet, Dickinson spent most of her adult life in her family home, rarely socializing and increasingly living only in her own room. Though she maintained close friendships, they were largely carried out through correspondence. Confined to the home at first by domestic duties, she seemed mostly unfazed by the isolation; her sister later stated that “Emily chose this part and, finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it.” Unsurprisingly, Dickinson’s expressive, lyrical poetry captures the quiet fervor of the passionate, thoughtful introvert. The declarations of imaginative power (“I never saw a moor,/I never saw the sea;/Yet know I how the heather looks,/And what a wave must be”), the precise observation of details (“A Bird came down the Walk—/He did not know I saw—/He bit an Angleworm in halves/And ate the fellow, raw”), and the aura of external calm (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – /The Stillness in the Room/Was like the Stillness in the Air – /Between the Heaves of Storm – “) that pervade her poems illustrate how introverts derive stimulation from even the smallest things.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
One of Woolf’s most unusual books, The Waves
reads more like a prose poem than a novel. The narration is delivered by a six-person chorus -- Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Louis, and Jinny -- as they progress from childhood to adulthood together. Despite the choral narration and the friendships between the characters, The Waves
has a pronounced sense of disconnection and isolation. Her work commonly emphasizes
the wealth of the interior and the difficulty (or fear) of sharing that interior life with others, and the lyrical form of this work underscores this sentiment. Each character gives voice to their most private moments of rapture and horror, creating a mood of vulnerability and often loneliness, and the fragmented movement of the story echoes the stream of one’s internal thoughts. Woolf creates a strange and poetic world focused almost entirely on the interior world, rather than the external.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Diaz doesn’t tiptoe around the nature of his chubby, nerdy protagonist: “Oscar,” he writes, “was a social introvert who trembled with fear during gym class.” It’s popular Junior who narrates the story, giving us the unusual perspective of an apparent extrovert observing minutely the life of an introvert. Though Oscar actually craves interpersonal intimacy -- specifically a girlfriend -- the general social scene holds only fear for him. Comfort means reading sci-fi or writing pages and pages of elaborate fantasy stories. Oscar Wao probes the painful dilemma of the shy introvert: He longs for deep relationships, but doesn’t have the ease with casual socializing that might lead to one (a problem only complicated by his conventionally unappealing looks and niche interests).
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
The sensitive, observant narrator of Proust’s classic novel shares his inner life and recollections with us so thoroughly that we seem to be inside his mind. He recalls with great fondness the simplest of pleasures -- even the taste of a madeleine in tea is so powerful to him that it can trigger waves of nostalgia -- suggesting that he is acutely affected by everything in his environment. His attachments are fervent, and he can’t even fall asleep happily as a child without a kiss goodnight from his mother. Meanwhile, the prose moves deliberately, carefully, showing a dedication to careful thought. Perhaps most importantly, you have to be eager to spend hours and hours alone with a book in order to finish this novel -- it’s a long one.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated the title of Susan Cain's book.