On The Pleasures and Solitudes of Quiet Books

August 27, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 25 4 min read


Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.

coverIn her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:

…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.

But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.

In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.

coverIt probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.

Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.

Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.

The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:

cover1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.

2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.

3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.

4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.

cover5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.

6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”

Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.


  1. “Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.” Possibly the best line I’ve read all week.

    I’ve always loved quiet books (Marilynne Robinson is a special favorite), so thank you so much for this short list. I would also add Stoner, previously covered by The Millions, except that I haven’t finished it yet so no guarantees.

  2. I read the title of this essay and immediately thought of The Summer Book, which I found by chance in a used bookstore. I had no idea what it was about or who the author was, but it seemed like exactly the type of book I needed at the moment. It was peaceful and gentle and nostalgic.

  3. Thanks for this essay. I’ll be searching out the Yoon and Berlin books, especially. I’m in the middle of The Summer Book (which I’d saved for summer reading, of course!) and am enjoying its distinctive pace. I can recommend Jansson’s The Winter Book, too, but perhaps you might save this until winter arrives?

    As for Cole’s Open City, I found his novel is be an increasingly disquieting quiet read, to the moment when I realized that all his walking is an attempt to put emotional distance on a disturbing event in his past. Then his quiet novel, at least for me, became very loud indeed. I found this book to be even more rewarding when reread . . .

  4. A great list! I can’t wait to look into some of these novels. “Open City” and “Gilead” are beautiful. Might I recommend that “Tinkers” or (if Paul Harding’s first is any indication) “Enon” be added to your list?

  5. This essay was a graceful, quiet read itself, and the list of recommended books is fantastic. Thank you!

  6. I get the occasional need to seek books which provide comforts from the difficulties of everyday life, but the idea that a novel should adhere to some “loud” vs. “quiet” spectrum me is a largely useless dichotomy, if not a timid prescription that would be thrown out of any English class. Fiction should be flexible enough to inhabit ALL emotions: to make the reader laugh and cry, to give the reader noise and quiet (and if you’re seriously viewing OPEN CITY as a “quiet” novel, you’re clearly ignoring, if not misreading, the very loud pain that is buried within Julius and that is just as clamorous as any Harkaway vision).

    This gormless and egregious essay is little more than a retread of the dreaded and utterly useless “unlikable” characters debate. It is designed to encourage a type of pusillanimous and passive-aggressive reader, one who imposes her own dull and blinkered and eggshell-walking view of humanity onto Goodreads and Amazon, who diminishes the full range of literature and discourages authors from taking chances. That this nonsense would be published on a website ostensibly devoted to serious literary discussion is a mark that nobody here is especially interested in minding the store and stirring up real debate and answering to the more serious challenge of how to stay subtle and rational-minded in literature when the world is a mess that no amount of hiding will declutter.

  7. The last few lines are exactly what I envision when I think of a “quiet” novel. Perhaps “quiet,” then, is a misnomer.

  8. Re: Edward Champion comments, above

    I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel and someone who has no concern about “likability” in either my characters or my own interactions. I like my fiction quiet. I like my fiction rough. Don’t care, so long as it’s good. Ms. Mandel’s essay displays the same lovely writing style and quietly but sharply perceptive sensibility that marks her fiction. She is a young writer I value and I look forward to following her career.

    As for Champion’s hatchet job, what nonsense. Nothing she is writing about has anything to do with the “unlikable” characters debate. You, sir, have totally missed the point. A “gormless and egregious essay?” “Designed to encourage a type of pusillanimous and passive-aggressive reader…” “Dull and blinkered and eggshell-walking view of humanity.” Balderdash!

    As for your galumphing and harrumphing umbrage that “this nonsense would be published on a website ostensibly devoted to serious literary discussion….” All I have to say to that is… Get thee back to your murky lair under the bridge, Troll!


    Moe Murph (Definitely not the quiet type)
    Washington, DC

  9. I endorse Maureen’s defence of this essay; it seems churlish to attack it so venomously. The tone was surely intended to be slightly humorous and conversational, to stimulate the kind of friendly, literary discussion one would prefer to see in these comments – not an unwarranted, egregiously misguided attack! Let’s have a bit of quiet, calm comment, please.

  10. Gilead is a marvel. So free of irony and guile and tortured self-consciousness.
    I think Evan Connell’s pair of novels, Mr Bridge, and Mrs Bridge, can be tagged Quiet. So uneventful you can’t put them down. You cant wait to see what doesn’t happen next. Another way of saying that every sober paragraph, every mundane moment, feels (quietly) momentous.

  11. Maureen: How have I missed the point? Would you care to actually offer a defense/? Do you actually have an argument? No, you don’t. And I do. And I will happily debate you at length (or, for that matter, the pusillanimous Emily St. John Mandel, who remains “quiet” and reveals her limitations as a thinker with her silence) using specific examples and taut arguments. But, of course, you have nothing more in your cheap rhetorical reticule other than asserting that the proposition is wrong. Is that too “loud” for you? Have I upset your fragile minds by calling you out on your indolent thinking? Oh dear.

    Simon Lavery also belongs in the dunk tank for failing to argue. Neither of you can offer a bona-fide position. You only wish to declare my viewpoint wrong. That doesn’t fly in any real debate. Are either of you familiar with a constructive argument?

    You people are what’s wrong with America. Learn how to think or you’ll end up dead and useless.

  12. Re: Edward Champion

    My above short comment was in reply to you, I just forgot to name you as the intended recipient, the point being that “quiet” simply refers to a style of writing and not the entirety of the literature put in such a category. Every dichotomy can be deconstructed, but that doesn’t change the self-evident difference in writing style between Marilynne Robinson and, say, David Foster Wallace. And, yes, there are differences in writing style between the authors listed in the article above, but I’m sure you can wrap your “rational” mind around the axis of difference we’re adopting here that shows a greater difference between “quiet” and “loud” styles of literature than between works of “quiet” literature. Again, this isn’t a rigid axis, and the standard is subjective, but, of course, you already knew that, given that literary tastes are always subjective—-as are the taste (or lack thereof) in “rational” comments.

    (Why do I feel like I’ve just been trolled?)

  13. Emily wrote, “some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud,” which is a pretty clear-cut rigid dichotomy that is even more problematic than the speculative riffing Zadie Smith was doing in her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel.” The fact that you, CJ (or should I just call you Lee Siegel?), and Emily would rather ascribe a taxonomic element to writers as deeply complicated and as variegated and as rich as Marilynne Robinson and DFW reveals that you are not especially interested in unpacking the literary ideal I described above: once again, that fiction should encompass ALL human qualities so that one does not approach the act of reading literature in the same crass manner as one orders from a Taco Bell drive-thru.

  14. Re: My dear friend Ed,

    This will be my last post on this thread, and I want to apologize on behalf of both of us for making a bloody mess of the bottom half of this page when such a beautiful article starts it off. Ed, if you still want to continue, you’re on your own.

    Despite the fact that you obviously aren’t looking for an open-minded discussion rather than looking for a mole to whack with your hammer of a brain, I still find just enough logic in your post to warrant a response. Since you’re going so analytical on me, you should also know, of course, that the “some . . . , others . . . ” construction is not delimiting, as opposed to “some . . . , the others . . . .” The sentence you cited could easily have continued, “and others have pink covers, and others still are written in Greek.”

    To return to the contention at hand, I’ve already mentioned that the axis chosen is arbitrary. That does not preclude other equally valid axes from being chosen, resulting in equally valid comparisons. A rationally minded person such as yourself should know very well that the first step to “unpacking” anything is to draw distinctions; otherwise everything is equally singular as everything else and no meaningful comprehension can be made whatsoever outside of, “Oh, that’s a work of fiction.” You obviously believe that more can be said, given the arbitrary standard that you put up: “fiction should encompass ALL human qualities.” Ergo, under this rubric, the closer a work of fiction is to this goal, the better it is. There is no universal truth that supports your axis as “better” or “worse” (or other such nonsense dichotomies) than any other; and I might mention the fact that democracy has no logical connection with truth.

    But that brings me to my third and last point: You’re begging the question. This article never said that “quiet” works are better than “loud” ones always and forevermore. Did your cherry-picking skip over how the author said “I have an immense love for loud books”? And the numbers on the list have no ordinal value attached to them at all, not even implied in the text. There is no evidence period that the author is promoting a “taxonomy” of literature; even if there were, you have provided no argumentation supporting the harm that such a taxonomy would cause to your “literary ideal,” which, again, is as arbitrary an axis as the one you so “rationally” seem worked up about.

    Even when I know I’m having my time wasted, I find this article too good to not defend. (And that, my dear Ed, is a subjective literary taste.)

  15. I am so grateful for this essay. Just gave me two more books to my “to read” list–The Summer Book, and The Harp in the South.

    I’d like to add three more books that I consider quiet books, very powerful, poignant, and unforgettable, and these are the trilogy by Kent Haruf–Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction. About the lives of people in an imaginary town in Colorado, called Holt.

    I realize that I am slow to add my comments here, and so probably no one will even get to this little submission, but just in case one person reads my suggestion, and then gives these books some attention, I will be satisfied.

  16. Thank you so much for this article, Ms. Mandel. I’ve never conceptualized novels in this “loud” and “quiet” way, but it seems like a really useful way to think about books
    It also helps me personally, as a reader, because lately I keep picking up “quiet” books that I’m sure I’ll like, reading for fifty pages, and then just forgetting to finish them! It’s baffled me, because I know intellectually that the book is good, but I can’t get into it. Whereas when I’ve picked up something like “John Dies at the End,” I can’t get enough of it. I think I set a record finishing that book!

  17. What a lovely essay. I have Gilead in my to-read pile and might just move it up now. I have not read the others on this list but they are now on my list too.

    I can’t recall if I’ve thought of books as quiet or loud but, yes, I get the meaning. And, as I think through my reading this year, I think The Book of Ebenezer Le Page would fall into the “quiet” category as described here – although it is a book that covers an entire man’s life over some 60+ years and filled with so many lovely characters. Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, which I re-read this year, might fall into the “loud” category, even though I loved it even more this time around.

    Thank you for this lovely piece.

  18. Good article, I’ll have to check out some of these books.

    Ironically it ended up provoking the loudest noise I think I’ve ever seen on this webpage. For a second I thought I was on thermps or htmlwhatever with the kids.

  19. Love books like these; thank you to Emily for giving me more to read! Have always loved the quietness of So Long, See You Tomorrow by James Maxwell. Its refusal to draw attention to itself makes it all the more compelling.

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