The best books about loners whose passions lure them toward other people

Who am I?

All my life, I’ve been fascinated by interest-driven people and the subcultures they discover or form around themselves. Though my writing ranges from mainstream literary work to music criticism to speculative fiction in many different flavors, I’m best known for what one longtime reader referred to as my “oddly personable brand of horror.” Call them people-and-their-ghosts stories. I’ve written six novels and four collections, which have earned me the Shirley Jackson and International Horror Guild Awards, among other honors. I’ve also taught writing at the graduate, university, and secondary level for more than 25 years.

I wrote...

Infinity Dreams

By Glen Hirshberg,

Book cover of Infinity Dreams

What is my book about?

In my most recent book, a novel-in-stories called Infinity Dreams, two insatiably curious, instinctively solitary people, Nadine and Normal (aka the Collector), sustain a decades-long romance neither of them expected largely through a shared love of prowling the more arcane corners of the collecting universe. Far from antique shops or garage sales or flea markets, they help (or sometimes thwart) people who collect everything from maps of places that may not exist to lost tastes. They also keep bumping up against an elusive and increasingly dangerous sense of something fraying at the edges of what we insist on calling reality. And they keep rediscovering each other.

Here are five more books I love about obsessive people pursuing their interests and incidentally discovering possible bridges back toward others.

The books I picked & why

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84, Charing Cross Road

By Helene Hanff,

Book cover of 84, Charing Cross Road

Why this book?

A memoir in letters about a solitary writer in mid-century New York corresponding with the proprietor and staff of a used book shop in London, from whom she orders inexpensive but attractive copies of mostly classics over a period of decades. Even more, it’s a memoir of relationships that develop as a consequence (all through letters; the principals never meet in person). There are so many reasons I love it. For one thing, Helene Hanff collects, rather than accrues. She’s not in it for the First Editions (which doesn’t mean she can’t appreciate decent paper or proper weight or used book smell); she’s in love with the words, and the way they seem to make her feel more like a fellow human being than her interactions with actual people do. There is the natural infusion, over a period of years, of not just incidental details of lives being lived but the personalities of the correspondents. But it’s the language, and the vessels that contain it, that ferry Hanff back and forth between the private world she treasures and the baffling, teeming, everyday one. The most precise and painful evocation of the very real joys of a certain kind of loneliness that I’ve ever encountered.

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey,

Book cover of Ways to Disappear

Why this book?

Emma, the bored and restless translator into English of the works of a reclusive, once-celebrated Brazilian author, learns that the author has disappeared. On impulse, and uninvited, Emma ducks out of her Pittsburgh life and a relationship she has tired of, jets off to Brazil, and insinuates herself into the ongoing investigation into what has happened. Less a detective story than a constantly unfolding act of decoding—like Helene Hanff, Emma seems to have an easier time coaxing layered meaning out of words than interpreting gestures or interactions with actual people—Ways to Disappear is packed with doubts about humanity but soul-deep love of books, Brazil, and the process of translation. (Novey herself has translated the brilliant and enigmatic Clarice Lispector.) This being 21st Century American lit, the relationships that form feel less stable, healthy, and sustainable. And yet, in indulging her fascination with the mysteries of other places and languages and literary lives and layers of meaning, Emma keeps accidentally rediscovering and reengaging with the mysteries of the people right in front of her.

The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng,

Book cover of The Garden of Evening Mists

Why this book?

Maybe more hopeful about the redemptive power of re-engagement, this beautiful book employs eloquent language to evoke a passion and a way of interacting involving almost no words whatsoever. In Malaysia in 1949, a prosecutor of Japanese war criminals arrives at the gates of the Emperor’s former chief gardener, seeking reparation (and maybe revenge) for the death of her sister in a prisoner-of-war camp. The story itself is sweeping in scope, but the narration stays quiet, and the real core of the book is the spell cast by the building and walking of Japanese gardens on the understandably embittered protagonist and her enigmatic target/mentor. In immersing us in the lore of and techniques for the gentle framing of space, Eng provides his characters (and us) with new contexts for making sense of and coming to a sort of peace with human behavior, monstrous and otherwise.

Wylding Hall

By Elizabeth Hand,

Book cover of Wylding Hall

Why this book?

Nothing ultimately redemptive or reconnective happens in the bucolic English country house where the wayward members of Windhollow Faire, a drug-addled early ‘70s folk-rock ensemble very much in the Fairport Convention mold, meet to write and record a new album. These people are spinning away from each other and out of control at different speeds and toward their own ends—not all of them tragic—and nothing that happens in this sun-dappled but crumbling and very possibly haunted shambles is going to slow or reverse that. But, what they do share—what they create, or stumble into, seemingly just by being near each other—is that accidental alchemy through which great bands produce something exponentially more transcendent than any of their members will ever manage individually. This is a ghost story, in the end, and some of it is truly scary—best and most terrifying use of birds since The Birds—but it’s also a paean to the wildest magic humans may ever touch or know: the kind they make together.

Too Many Cooks

By Rex Stout,

Book cover of Too Many Cooks

Why this book?

Really, almost anything in the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series would fit here. A lazy, blustering, brilliant recluse, Nero Wolfe is perpetually badgered, kicking and grumbling, back toward humanity either by his passions—American cuisine, beer, books, orchids—or by Archie, his leg-man/lacky/surrogate son. I picked this specific novel because it involves a murder amid a gathering of world-class chefs; the cooking banter alone is worth the price of admission (which will be cheap; how and why have these books somehow fallen off our collective cultural radar??). None of Nero’s adventures among his fellow human beings make him want to venture out of the fortress he has made for himself inside his Manhattan brownstone. But they’ll make you want to hole up in his company. The man himself thinks he just wants to be left alone with his interests and comforts. But what he creates and relies on to sustain him feels pretty damn close to a family. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in private investigators, gardens, and letters?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about private investigators, gardens, and letters.

Private Investigators Explore 98 books about private investigators
Gardens Explore 27 books about gardens
Letters Explore 18 books about letters

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like "A" Is for Alibi, The Monkey's Raincoat, and Killing Floor if you like this list.