Some people crave time alone to run. Sadly, I'm not one of those people. But still, I found myself fascinated with a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In this memoir, the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes about one of his passions: marathons. He describes how running satisfies his need for solitude, helps him deal with anger (when he's angry, he runs longer) and allows him to return to work refreshed and productive. But Murakami's point is more about taking a moment to clear your head. For example, his great love of naps. He writes movingly about the need, especially when you get older, to prioritize your life and say no far more often. Whenever I read this book, I'm reminded that I need to cancel whatever I need to cancel to find time to do what I need to do—and that there's very little that's more important in my life than shutting my eyes for a precious few minutes when I'm too tired to think. Sure, Murakami can run. But all of us can nap.

2. Mary Oliver in her slender book of essays Upstream
"Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn't choose them, I don't fault them, but it took time to reject them," writes the poet Mary Oliver in her slender book of essays Upstream. "Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness." She reminds us that "attention is the beginning of devotion," and describes the ways that nature and literature can renew our spirits and fill us with wonder. Her language is so beautiful that just reading these essays is a form of meditation. And you don't need to live in the country to be inspired by Oliver's take on the natural world. I live in a city of 8 million, but I constantly turn to Upstream to remind myself that I can get awestruck daily, right in the little pocket park outside my window—if only I will remember to let my eyes wander.

Even though I know that we all need time by ourselves, I'm sometimes afraid to be alone. There's a fine line between being alone on purpose and being lonely—and it's easy to start on one side of it and end up on the other. That's why Stuart Little, the children's novel by E.B. White, is one of the first books I turn to when I need to summon courage to be all by myself. This short novel about a mouse named Stuart, who is born to a human family, has been one of my favorites since the age of 6. In the middle of the story, Stuart decides he needs to leave his clan to head out on a search for the friend who saved his life. We don't know whether Stuart will ever find her. Stuart doesn't know either. But when we leave him, he's cheerfully heading north "because that's where you go if you don't know where you're going." Whenever I need to leave the comfort of my home, family and friends to search alone for something or someone important, I try to channel Stuart.

Sometimes, what I really need is a moment to flex my creative muscles. These hours are precious but terribly hard to find. Much easier to nap (see: Murakami), take a walk in the woods (see: Mary Oliver) or do something really, really fun, like pay the bills and clean the kitchen. Whenever I have been ignoring my imagination for longer than I should, I turn to Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro. In this gem of a book, Shapiro writes about "the perils and pleasures of a creative life," and provides a very specific list of what you mustn't do when you want to write: "Don't answer the phone. Don't look at email. Don't go on the internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word." She also reminds me that I must say "no to lunch with friends, to the overflowing in-box." But her book is far more than admonishments: It's a love letter to the rewards of a creative life, to moments of awe and wonder.

When life is at its craziest, I pick up Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. I am deeply jealous of anyone who has yet to read this magnificent book. Morrison's third novel, written before she won the Nobel Prize in literature, follows the migration of a character named Milkman Dead. He travels from the North to the South, the reverse of the route taken by African-Americans in the Great Migration of the 20th century. Whenever I reread the novel, I am stunned anew by the story of a character named Pilate, Milkman's aunt. She travels with almost nothing: just some rocks, a spool of thread and a geography book. But that one book opens up for her the world for her. Which is one of the things that really great books do for us—inspire us to make more time to read.

Will Schwalbe is the author of Books for Living and The End of Your Life Book Club.