The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio

The Black Death hit Florence in spring 1348. In Boccaccio’s masterpiece, The Decameron (1353), a group of young friends, seven women and three men, decide to self-isolate in a palazzo outside the city, and they pass the time by telling stories. They each tell one story a day for ten days, a hundred stories in total, about cuckolded husbands, lascivious priests, quick-witted women and practical jokes. If you were to read one tale a day, The Decameron could keep you going for three months, but, even better, you could recreate it with a group of friends over video messaging: take in turns to choose a topic and share your stories.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

In 1665, Britain was ravaged by the Great Plague. Daniel Defoe describes it in his gripping historical novel, The Journal of the Plague Year (1722), with anecdotes about desperate remedies and red crosses daubed on infected houses. The narrator is not a model of social distancing, however: he interviews doctors, wanders the streets and peers into mass burial pits. For isolation inspiration, look up Defoe’s earlier novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719), in which the castaway survives for twenty-eight years on a desert island. Treat your home like Crusoe’s ‘Island of Despair’: mark the passing days on a doorframe; grow barley on your window ledge; improvise a makeshift potter’s wheel and consider adopting a small parakeet named Poll.

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, Edgar Allan Poe

Poe was an infamous recluse. With this anthology you can distract yourself with homely self-isolation pieces such as ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’, ‘Song-Writing’ or ‘On Imagination’, but it might be sensible to avoid the chilling fable ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), in which a bloody leprous plague sweeps the land and Prince Prospero welds himself into a palace with a thousand friends, all of whom are healthy, to begin with. Similarly unhelpful might be ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), in which a brother and sister self-isolate in an apparently sentient house. 

Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov

Learn to embrace me-time with Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, the spectacularly apathetic civil servant who self-isolates in his St Petersburg apartment through sheer laziness, abandoning his job and alienating his friends. He takes the first fifty pages to move from his bed to a chair. Goncharov’s 1859 novel, which he wrote while convalescing in the spa town of Marienbad, is a magnificent study of idleness. It inspired the term ‘Oblomovism’, a social disease of indolence that was considered rife among the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century.

Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans

If you’re searching for self-isolation chic, look no further than À rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. His hero, des Esseintes, retires to a house near Fontenay to spend his life as a voluptuous recluse. He basks in perfumes, soars with synesthetic liqueurs and at one point encrusts the shell of his pet tortoise with exotic jewels, until it is crushed to death under its own weight. You could also follow Huysmans’ writing method. ‘It takes me two years to “document” myself for a novel,’ he said — ‘two years of hard work.’ Document your own luxurious activities during self-isolation and you too could produce a jewel of literary decadence.

Narcissus and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse

Are you a natural self-isolator? In Hermann Hesse’s novel of 1930 he presents two alternative approaches to life: artistic Goldmund travels medieval Europe, experiencing sin, plague and war, whereas Narcissus lives as a monk in a world of spiritual self-isolation. The two friends meet as older men and evaluate their lives: Goldmund has attempted to embrace the full range of human experience, good and bad, whereas Narcissus has sought meaning inside himself. We all combine elements of Narcissus and Goldmund, and this novel will help you explore both the outside world vicariously and the benefits of solitude.

The Plague, Albert Camus

First it’s the rats, dying in stairwells and the streets, then people begin to develop buboes and the news spreads like infection: the plague has arrived in Oran. Camus’s angst-ridden novel, La Peste (1947), is a handbook for how to behave under quarantine: some townspeople become violent, some sink into passivity, but the best join forces to resist the terror and struggle to retain their human dignity. It can be read as an allegory for the French Resistance under German occupation, or as an existential response to human mortality, but it is also an inspirational guide to enduring an epidemic.

The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe

When an amateur entomologist misses the last bus after a beetle-hunting trip, he seeks shelter for the night in a strange village where the houses are half buried by sand dunes and accessible only by rope ladder. When he wakes up his ladder has disappeared and he finds himself forced into indefinite isolation with his anonymous hostess. Initially he is furious, but his anger is exhausting and eventually he becomes accustomed to the absurd situation. When the ladder finally reappears, he decides to stay. Self-isolators, beware: Abe’s brilliant, dream-like novel of 1962 is a warning against the seductive attractions of seclusion.

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

In Reed’s post-modern Mumbo Jumbo (1972), America in the roaring twenties is swept by a contagious virus called ‘Jes Grew’, which makes people want to listen to jazz, to groove, sing, laugh and be happy. The funky contagion has arrived in Harlem, and elderly voodoo houngan PaPa LaBas preaches the gospel in his Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, while the sinister Wallflower Order attempts to contain the virus. The novel is a gloriously experimental cocktail of conspiracy theories, alternative history and what Reed calls ‘neo-hoodoo’ — the perfect escape from reality.

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

And finally, perhaps a period of self-isolation will give you the time to pursue a long-held infatuation at a distance? In Spanish, cólera means both ‘cholera’ and ‘intense passion’, and in García Márquez’s epic novel, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), lovesickness is equated with bacterial infection. As one character struggles to eradicate the cholera epidemic in Colombia, we follow an unequal love triangle over several decades, marvelling at the myriad forms that love and desire can take.

Henry Eliot is the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics and the author of The Penguin Classics Book.

  • Sign up to the Penguin Classics newsletter

    This is a required field.

    Your email is invalid

    By signing up, I confirm that I'm over 16. To find out what personal data we collect and how we use it, please visit our Privacy Policy

TThe form could not be submitted.Please try again!

Recaptcha validation Failed.Please try again!

Read more


Strictly Necessary


Analytics


Preferences & Features


Targeting / Advertising