The best books that will tell you everything you wanted to know about existentialism but were afraid to ask

Lee Braver Author Of Heidegger: Thinking of Being
By Lee Braver

The Books I Picked & Why

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

By Søren Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie, Joseph Campbell

Book cover of Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Why this book?

How many bibliographical jokes have you ever heard, well, read? This book has jokes in its Table of Contents, its title, its sub-title—in the author attribution! And at the end, the Postscript to this Postscript takes the entire thing back—twice!—although, as Kierkegaard says, to write something and take it back is not the same as not writing it. He wants to affect the reader, not just pass along abstruse theories. Kierkegaard criticizes the basic mindset of philosophy that pretends to have a God’s-eye view of reality when really we’re forced to make decisions of crucial importance, in precarious circumstances, with limited information, never knowing if it was the right one, perpetually living out our lives suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water. 

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The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs

By Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann

Book cover of The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs

Why this book?

Alchemists pretended to have magic that could control nature until their immature discipline evolved into chemistry, a science that actually can do amazing things to improve our state. Nietzsche asks this SAT analogy question: chemistry is to alchemy, as what is to philosophy and religion? What could evolve from those pretenders that could actually be beneficial, using the same kind of tools but sharpened, honed, perfected? His answer: the joyous, frolicking wisdom he fills this book with. This is where he pronounces the death of God and the birth of humanity, as well as the Eternal Return of the Same as the prayer one says over a dead God.

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Being and Time

By Martin Heidegger, John MacQuarrie, Edward S. Robinson

Book cover of Being and Time

Why this book?

If aliens land and ask me what it’s like to be a human, I’ll give them Heidegger’s first book, Being and Time. Of course, that might prompt them to destroy all humans out of frustration at the difficulty of his writing, but if they persevere, they will find the best description of what it’s like to live out your time on this planet (One Hundred Years of Solitude comes in second).

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Existentialism Is a Humanism

By Carol Macomber, Jean-Paul Sartre

Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Why this book?

This short talk has become one of the defining texts of existentialism. We have no essence, no purpose, no reason to be, and this both frees us and dooms us: we are doomed to be free. The heavy responsibility for creating meaning is placed firmly on our shoulders. Most people find the burden too heavy to bear and seek relief through what Sartre calls “bad faith,” which he spends much time detailing. You will recognize yourself somewhere in there. Sartre tells us there’s nothing we can do about this, but we can do nothing—we can embrace this nothingness and create a meaning for ourselves. 

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Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

By Samuel Beckett

Book cover of Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

Why this book?

Existentialism spilled out of the ivory tower into heated conversations in cafes and smoky dorm rooms at 2:00 am all over the world, where it continues to be intensely discussed today (albeit, with more vape than smoke nowadays). It had an enormous influence on art, especially literature, inspiring many masterpieces. From the multitude I could point to (Kafka’s The Trial, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Vonnegut’s, I don’t know, Slaughter-House 5, sure), I’ll pick Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play where, as an early critic wrote, nothing happens. Twice. One of the first US performances took place in San Quentin State Prison, where the prison newsletter wrote one of the most insightful reviews it ever received. After all, who knows more about waiting than those doing time? And, in the end, what else are we doing?

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