AC WP RSCN4338 ENH2Yes, these are the 10 shyest novels of all time – according to me.

Since there were over 25,000 novels written in the 19th century alone, and I haven’t read more than 150 of them, along with, maybe, 500 from the 20th and 21st centuries, whose novels no one has tried to count as far as I know, this is not an exclusive list.

There is nothing here earlier than the 19th century. I would dearly like to have included the 17th century Don Quixote, since it is a book that must please many shy readers as much as it pleases me, but Cervantes was not a shy man, and neither was his hero, Don Quixote (though he appears to be on the spectrum), that self-made obdurate knight who rides through the world like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, not understanding the world, yet understanding it better than anyone else.

Instead of trying to rank them, I’m presenting these books as it suits me.

  • A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens [1843]

Most people don’t think of gruff, reticent, tough-talking people as shy, but most of them are very shy. Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ most famous character, must be the most famous one in fiction.

Scrooge’s story is probably the most read, most filmed and most watched story of all time. If we could get in a time machine and travel a thousand years into the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it still holding that position.

Scrooge’s transition from an asocial, withdrawn, unsympathetic miser to a born-again happy generous man should not be seen as a transition from shy to unshy, or from an introvert to an extrovert. Shy people can be generous and out-going too, while remaining their true shy selves.

So I’m sure Scrooge wouldn’t have stopped being shy once the Christmas holiday was passed. He would still have kept to himself most of the time, but his new view of his fellow man was changed for good. He went from being an unhappy shy man to a happy shy man, and one of Dickens’ messages is that this can happen to anyone.

  •  Victory – by Joseph Conrad [1915]

Joseph Conrad was a very shy man. Any of his novels belong here, but Victory deals so directly with the aloneness of a very shy life that it has to come first.

Axel Heyst takes over his deceased father’s business on an island off the coast of Sumatra, then the business falls into decline and he does what so many shy people would like to do – retire from the world.

But the world comes looking for him.  Though he is just getting by, the theory develops in on the mainland in Surabaya that he is hiding riches on his island.

Three men arrive in a small boat set on acquiring whatever is to be had, the most unforgettable evil threesome in fiction. Heyst’s struggle, first to understand what they’re up to, then to resist them when it has become too late to resist them, makes this the powerful novel that it is.

  • The Haunting of Hill House – by Shirley Jackson [1959]

I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether horror is a fantasy genre whose readers are escaping the real world through fear, or if horror is, at some deep psychological level, addressing real problems in the real world.

One way or the other, its continuing popularity continues to soar above anything else.

Shirley Jackson might be said to have started modern horror with this book that was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1959. Stephen King says she was a big influence on him.

You won’t find a better depiction of a classic shy introvert than central character, Eleanor Vance. The fact that things don’t turn out well for her is, to say it mildly, what makes this a horror novel of unusual power, one that has haunted me and many others for a long time.

  • Barnaby Rudge – by Charles Dickens [1841]

Yes, I’m giving Dickens another book. I could have given him three or four, because he is, in my opinion, more important to an understanding of our civilization and the people in it, than any other author – or psychologist.

Though it is rarely acknowledged outside of literary circles, fiction and poetry have always been a form of psychology, its authors research psychologists exploring the human psyche. Psychologist C. G, Jung often said he learned much from the 19th century romantics.

Dickens was one of those strange people who are both shy and unshy, introverted and extroverted.

Shyness and autism often overlap, and character Barnaby Rudge may be the earliest attempt to depict this in fiction. Barnaby is vulnerable and admirable at the same time, physically strong and adept, but simple in his thinking, enchanted by the natural world, honest and trusting in a cynical, deceitful human world that he doesn’t understand. He is very shy and very conscious of it.

But his best friend, the raven Grip who rides in his backpack, throwing out sardonic comments on this problematic world, and who will share a prison cell with Barnaby, does understand the world, at least according to Barnaby.

Dickens had two pet ravens, who he wrote about elsewhere. He knew the birds well.

When Edgar Allen Poe was working on his famous poem The Raven, he intended his bird to be an owl. But when he read Barnaby Rudge, he immediately decided that it had to be a raven.

  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy [1869]

Many people would argue that a novel that has so many well-drawn characters, spans decades, stretches across Europe and Russia as it depicts monumental historic events, cannot be considered a shy book.

But the central character, Pierre Bezukhov, has the profound shyness and innocence of a sensitive autistic man. A non-combatant at the battle of Borodino, he walks through the fighting as if he is wandering through a dream. That chapter might be the finest chapter in a novel ever written.

Ernest Hemingway, another shy man, once claimed that, one after another,  he’d got into the literary boxing ring with most of the world’s famous writers and beaten them them with better work.

But he immediately qualified that, declaring that no one would ever get him to enter the ring with Leo Tolstoy.

  • Silas Marner  by George Eliot [1861]

George Eliot was one of the most skilled, most readable English writers of the 19th century. Though she isn’t as famous as Dickens, Balzac or Tolstoy, she is easily their equal.

Shyness is to be found throughout her books, so it’s hard to choose between them. I chose Silas Marner because the scene where this quiet, retiring weaver finally faces up to his social superior, the bragging, selfish Godfrey Cass, eldest son of Squire Cass, heir to that estate, in a dispute over Marner’s adopted daughter Emmie, is one of the greatest in all of literature.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude  by Gabriel Garcia Marquez [1967]

Whenever this book comes up in conversation, at least among English speaking readers, someone always starts talking about its famous ‘magic realism’ – the levitating priest, the rain that falls uninterrupted for 4 years and 11 months, the butterflies that follow people around, etc. They never talk about the shy solitary characters that dominate the story.

Marquez resented such superficial reading of the story. When this happened in an interview with one journalist, he replied impatiently, “The book is about solitude.”

Aureliano Buendia senior, the foundation of it all, and present through most of the hundred years, says almost nothing. Rebecca, a mute orphaned girl, enters the book walking silently down the road carrying her parents’ bones in a sack. She grows up silently in the Buendia household, gets married to everyone’s surprise, then disappears when her husband is killed, only to reappear in a stunning, completely unexpected scene after you’ve forgotten all about her.

Yes, One Hundred Years of Solitude has shy solitary characters around ever corner. Garcia Marquez obviously agreed with Joseph Conrad’s famous statement – “We live as we dream – alone” – and this book was his demonstration of it.

  • The Last Stop of the Tramp Steamer  by Álvaro Mutis [1988]

Only a shy author, or at least one with a deep understanding of shyness, could have written this novel in which the central character is a small, aging ocean freighter. Mutis  was a Columbian like Marquez. The two were close friends, living on the same street in Mexico City for many years.

The captain of the little ship, Jon Iturri, is a member of the Basque race, a people who, Mutis says, have turned their silence into a weapon “acerada y insondable” (unfathomable and sharp as steel).

On a sunny, severely cold winter morning, the narrator of the story, who has not yet met Iturri, goes down to a pier on Finland’s south coast to see the sparkling vision of St Petersburg far off across the gulf, and so, by accident, sees for the first time, but not the last time, the Alción, the grimy rusted little freighter, covered with ice, slowly chugging in ‘like a badly wounded saurian’, just escaped from its latest ordeal out on the sea.

Those first few pages are my choice for the finest opening to a novel ever written.

Though it still has not been read by many English readers, The Last Stop of the Tramp Steamer won the Cervantes prize, the most prestigious award in the Spanish-speaking world. If you read it you will see why.

  • Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse [1927]

Magic realism became popular in our time mainly through Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it entered fiction full blown in 18th century Germany, and in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf you’ll find the finest use of it that I’ve ever seen.

Harry Haller, the steppenwolf, might be the best example I know of a shy confident man in a novel. Some will dispute this, arguing that someone who contemplates suicide as he walks the streets alone at night is anything but confident.

Well, he does that because he has lost interest in a selfish, hypocritical, dishonest society. He has no use for it, and rejects it with confidence and fortitude.

Almost a century after it was first published, this book continues to draw new readers, especially those who are young, romantic and resistant to modern materialism. It was the inspiration for my own novel The Birdcatcher, and I expect it to inspire many more books to come.

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway [1952]

This story of a shy man alone on the ocean demonstrates better than anything I’ve ever read that shyness has more, much much more, in it than timidity. Shyness and strength are sometimes not two things, but one.

Though it is a small book and so is often not recognized as a novel today, in the scope of the events and visions described, it is a perfect novel.

Santiago’s silent struggle during those days and nights, when he can only talk to himself and the great unseen fish to whom he has become irrevocably connected, is one of those timeless stories that is here to stay.

As long as there is anyone left to read, I think these are ten books will still be read a thousand years from now.


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