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13 soothing books to retreat into and relax with

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I’ve been thinking back to some of my favourite quotes from Marcus Aurelius lately.

In his Meditations, he shares how we seek retreats for ourselves in all manner of external ways, while forgetting that we can instead retreat into ourselves at any time – “into your own little territory within yourself [with] no agonies, no tensions.”

When the world is like nothing we’ve ever experienced, the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and the power of having a calm and gentle inner landscape couldn’t be more valuable.

I spend a lot of time in my own head, which I don’t see as a bad thing. By choosing what I think about, I can select the furniture of my own mind. I spring clean and dust the cobwebs by gently evicting the thoughts I’d rather not allow to linger. And by encouraging joy and gratitude, I put some fresh flowers in there and open the windows.

Alongside this general upkeep, I furnish my mind by retreating into books. With every book I read, I have new places to imagine. There are Siberian forests, exotic beaches, magical libraries, and houses by the river to visit when I need a break. The journeys are endless – there are always more books to read.

Here are a few of the books I’ve loved retreating into – I hope they’re as soothing and rejuvenating for your mind as well.

“Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life.”

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Martin Hammond

Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

In the world of Glendy Vanderah’s novel, we meet Joanna Teale. After the loss of her mother and her own battle with breast cancer, Joanna returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in rural Illinois, determined to prove that her recent hardships have not broken her.

She throws herself into her work from dusk to dawn, until her solitary routine is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious child who shows up at her cabin barefoot and covered in bruises.

The girl calls herself Ursa, and she claims to have been sent from the stars to witness five miracles. For the rest of the story, venture into the unique world of Where the Forest Meets the Stars.

“the flower whisperer who made everyone and everything around her bloom. Her light is still with us, growing love across the universe…”

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

One small piece of joy for me in the global crisis has been seeing how more people are searching for tips on reading Tolstoy and finding my writing. I find that so wonderful to see – it’s an excellent time for Tolstoy.

If you decide to jump into the universe of War and Peace, try to immerse yourself in it. Don’t feel you need to remember every name of every character (there are far too many), just let the writing wash over you.

The best translation I’ve found for that is the Anthony Briggs, which you can read in this beautiful hardbound edition from Penguin Clothbound Classics:

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

A retreat to the Italian Riviera, where everything is in full bloom, soothing, and gleaming with freedom.

“That evening was the evening of the full moon. The garden was an enchanted place where all the flowers seemed white. The lilies, the daphnes, the orange-blossom, the white stocks, the white pinks, the white roses – you could see these as plainly as in the daytime; but the coloured flowers existed only as fragrance.”

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Pick up The Great Alone to head back to 1974, when Cora Allbright and her husband, Ernt – a recently returned Vietnam veteran scarred by the war – uproot their thirteen-year-old daughter, Leni, to start a new life in Alaska.

Utterly unprepared for the weather and the isolation, but welcomed by the close-knit community, they fight to build a home in this harsh, beautiful wilderness.

“Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I’ve got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place.”

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery

Retreat into a book that celebrates the joy of sharing a life with animals, learning from them how to be a good creature ourselves. Heartwarming and wholesome, it makes for a perfect gift for animal lovers (am I alone in sending myself more book gifts recently?)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This book shaped everything I read afterwards. It’s so beautifully crafted. When I think back to Tan Twan Eng’s writing, I think of light rain over trees, gentle birdsong at dusk, and sitting quietly alone in a garden that’s well-tended without keeping the wild out.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Journey to Rivendell and the Shire, whether for the first time or as a repeat visit, to appreciate the best of what life has to offer in a world that isn’t always wholly good.

“Elrond’s house was perfect, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing (or reading), or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness. … Evil things did not come into the secret valley of Rivendell.”

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Even if you can’t venture out and explore right now, reading The Living Mountain is one of the next best things. Divided into chapters about the elements of mountain adventures – Frost and Snow, The Plants, Senses, Being – The Living Mountain marks Nan Shepherd as one of Scotland’s finest nature writers.

Nan Shepherd is remembered on a Scottish banknote with her wonderful quote, “It’s a grand thing, to get leave to live.”

“This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a master of creating universes. Most readers fall into categories of adoring his writing, despising it with a soaring passion, or feeling utterly indifferent and unable to get past a few pages.

If you’re new to Murakami, there will be cats, whisky, inexplicable truths, and wonder. Kafka on the Shore is my favourite and high up the queue on my re-reading list.

“It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”

Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting

A fun outlier on this list, Lars Mytting’s book is part guide to chopping wood and part philosophical pondering. It’s a window into Scandinavian culture that’s ideal for kindling your imagination on a lazy afternoon.

Epic Hikes of the World by Lonely Planet

This is one book I’m retreating into often while spending more time at home. Walking the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland last summer was one of the most transformational achievements of my life – I didn’t realise quite how strong I was until I completed it.

Now I’m looking to this beautifully-designed Lonely Planet book to help inspire my next adventure. Will it be Sweden, New Zealand, or one of the great American trails? Time will tell. In the meantime, my imagination can enjoy all of the great wildernesses on our beautiful planet.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

To retreat into the depths of the earth and venture many millions of years before we existed, read Robert Macfarlane. His other books are incredible too – I love Mountains of the Mind – and will have you planning your next adventure.

More hand-picked book recommendations:


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