Two thousand twenty-one was a year of reading lonely people. As one year melted into another, Claire Danes read me Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I walked around a cold and gray and empty Philadelphia, embittered and lonely and feeling brattily like I was entitled to another life. I scoffed at the man in the epic traveling the world feeling the same. He was out to sea in his way, I in mine, kicking rocks down the sidewalk in Fishtown. More lonely protagonists awaited me. I read Convenience Store Woman, Jesus’ Son, Harlem Shuffle, Darryl, Luster, Fake Accounts. While I trudged up to my home office and then, later in the year, when I went back into the medical clinic where I work a nine-to-five they called out to me, these lonely people in books. As I sat in clinic calling and emailing and calling, I watched the lonely books sit waiting for me on the edge of my desk. I read Anne Carson’s An Oresteia; I wanted that drama and, looking around at my life, saw none of it. Just emails and spreadsheets and breakfasts and snacks and under everything, in every place, the sickness, that unpoetic death. In No One Is Talking About This I saw the churning nothingness of my phone staring back at me. I walked around with my books, and then I walked reading Milkman, about a lonely young woman who does the same. I ran down American Street listening to Melissa Febos read Abandon Me. With her voice at my back, for once, I felt someone with me. In bed at night, gripped by anxiety about fatherhood, I read A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, seeing again my loneliness. How could I be in this persistent seeking out of characters like this when all around me my children swirled with their infernal nearness? The yelling. The needing. The more yelling. I took them outside. Sitting on the sidelines of a splash pad by City Hall I read With Teeth, embarrassed and thrilled to have a mirror of parental isolation to look into. I read Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, feeling bizarrely and confusedly lonely realizing that despite the pandemic it had been years since I had cried. She sat in her kitchen crying and I sat in my kitchen staring off into the nothing, eyes dry. Halle Butler’s protagonist Megan in Jillian made me laugh bitterly with her harsh, witty abandonment, while other characters showed me the loneliness of groups—Outlawed and The Secret History. My partner had a nursing job, only for a few months, in which she worked with the mothers of medically fragile infants. I read Rest and Be Thankful and for just a few hours I knew why she had to leave that job. Sitting on my stoop looking out at the traffic and the busy corner store across from my house, I read My Antonía for the first time, missing the kind of loneliness only an open space and a bucketful of nostalgia can bring. I read Joan Silber’s Household Words, wishing all along that Rhoda could connect, that I could connect. I read Patrick Cottrel’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, one of the most beautiful and lonely things in the entire world.
And then there was that morning, in the spring. I was alone and yet I was not lonely. My family was out of town, and I met a friend for coffee, and then I walked towards Schuylkill River Park. I sat on a park bench reading Kristen Radtke’s Seek You, and I felt the city all around me, most people sitting on picnic blankets or playing with dogs. The morning opened up. I opened up. I closed the book, walked towards the museum, and headed into one totally alive by myself.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.