Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocast concentration camp survivor who wrote this book upon his liberation. He applies his experiences in the camp to the development of an existentialist behavioral therapy (called logotherapy) based on the notion that man strives to have meaning (as opposed to striving for pleasure or happiness, etc.). Among many things, he says there is no one single meaning for man, but each individual creates his or her own meaning. I don’t know about you, but if there’s anyone I’d trust with the meaning of life, it would be a concentration camp survivor.
The Trial – Franz Kafka
The Stranger- Albert Camus
“‘You have misunderstood me. You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. You won’t be hampered in carrying on in the ordinary course of your life.’
‘Then, being arrested isn’t so very bad,’ said K., going up to the Inspector.
‘I never suggested that it was,’ said the Inspector.
‘But in that case it would seem there was no particular necessity to tell me about it,’ said K., moving still closer.” – The Trial, Franz Kafka
Who doesn’t love a good absurdist existential novella? Both authors similarly address the question, “Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives?” with the answer that life has no meaning, anything can happen for no reason at all, and the world is unfair and doesn’t make any sense. Sit on that for a second and see how it makes you feel!
Into the Wild and
Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
Oh the tragedy! Both books are great, but Into Thin Air as a first-person account is especially memorable. It’s the true story of the failed 1996 Everest expedition in which nearly everyone died, except, obviously, Krakauer. Into the Wild is about a recent university graduate who insists upon burning all of his money and abandoning his family and possessions in favor of a life of solitude living off the land.
Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
“‘They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they’re leaving their children to cope with.'”
If you read no other book ever in your whole life, just read Ishmael. It’s a Socratic dialogue between a gorilla and a man on how to save the world. The premise of the argument is that the Agricultural Revolution in the Neolithic Period of human evolution triggered the downfall of man and the planet. If you think you’re not interested in environmentalism or the “green movement”, you will be after this. After all, how can we save the world without saving the environment? READ THIS BOOK.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Ah, this wouldn’t be a list of books that make you think about the meaning of life without a dystopic novel would it? And how about that soma, amirite?
The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides
I still don’t know what this book is about. Is it about the beauty of innocence or the beauty of sin? The story of the suicides of five young sisters is, oddly enough, told from the very limited perspective of an unidentified group of boys from their neighborhood; because the narrators can’t understand the girls, neither can we. Which leaves room for lots of questions of course.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
“What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.”
Love and infidelity and Prague is most of what I remember from this book. Something about: our lives and loves are just series of coincidences that we make meaningful in our heads.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Essentially, Lolita is the story of the obsession with, and sexual exploitation of, a young girl by an older man who becomes her stepfather told from the (very unreliable) perspective of the stepfather. It’s dark, winding, and dense. If nothing else, you will be impressed with the author’s – a non-native English-speaker – mastery of the English language: Nabokov is a linguistic contortionist, somehow managing to bring light to this very grim tale.
You know, looking back at the list, I didn’t choose the happiest of books did I? Next time then. Feel free to comment or message me with more suggestions! I’m always looking for something enlightening to read :)