Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is Daniel Defoe’s master class in surviving isolation. The story’s protagonist, the eponymous Robinson Crusoe, is shipwrecked on a tropical island. Only he, the ship captain’s dog, and two cats survive. Salvaging tools from the ship, Crusoe crafts a life for himself, building a habitat, growing produce, and hunting and domesticating animals. After befriending a parrot and becoming religious, Crusoe eventually manages to escape the island. The takeaway: Pets can be a serious social isolation lifesaver, especially if they have a parrot’s knack for talking back.
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Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
This book could easily be substituted with Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, but Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet takes place in the Canadian wilderness and we’re showing our bias. Published in 1986, the story follows 13-year-old Brian Robeson who is abandoned after a bush plane carrying him to meet his father crash lands in Northern Canada. Robeson is forced to survive by using a hatchet given to him by his mother. The takeaway: The right tool can make all the difference. Sure, your tool might be a fridge or microwave, but as long as it’s keeping you alive, that’s all that matters.
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Walden by Henry David Thoreau
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau recounts the two years he spent living in a cabin at Walden Pond. His self-imposed isolation is an attempt to live a simple life, pared down to its essentials. Throughout the book he describes his thoughts on the economy, reading, companionship, and solitude, among other topics. It quickly becomes clear that Thoreau has an insatiable desire to throw off the shackles of conformity and live a unique life. The takeaway: Isolation is a great time for self-reflection and self-discovery. Just make sure your spiritual quest takes place near potable water and medical supplies. COVID-19 is no joke.
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Alone by Richard E. Byrd
This true tale of self-imposed isolation is liable to give you the chills. Published in 1938, Alone is Richard E. Byrd’s account of his 1934 expedition to Antarctica. He spent six months in a tent near the bottom of the world gathering weather data. Isolated until the spring, Byrd starts suffering mental and physical illnesses after carbon monoxide from a defective stovepipe poisons him. He barely escapes with his life. The takeaway: Social isolation is all good until you realize your carbon monoxide detector isn’t working. Check those batteries, people!
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The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
Despite being published in 1909, our final isolation tale, a short story by E.M. Forster, is most akin to our current situation. The Machine Stops describes an alternate reality in which humans live underground, isolated in rooms where their needs are met by an omnipotent machine. While people are permitted to leave the rooms and interact, it’s rarely necessary. Instead, communication is conducted over a video conferencing machine where people exchange ideas (sound familiar?). The people’s dependence on the machine, however, soon becomes their undoing. The takeaway: Machines can’t provide everything. Try to get outside every once in a while—just keep that two-metre bubble.
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