The best books for finding solidarity in suffering

Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I work on ethics and related questions about human agency and human knowledge. My interest in adversity is both personal and philosophical: it comes from my own experience with chronic pain and from a desire to revive the tradition of moral philosophy as a medium of self-help. My last book was Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, and I have also written about baseball and philosophy, stand-up comedy, and the American author H. P. Lovecraft.


I wrote...

Book cover of Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way

What is my book about?

There is no cure for the human condition: life is hard. But I believe philosophy can help. It offers us a map for navigating rough terrain, from personal trauma to the injustice and absurdity of the world. In Life is Hard, I share my own experience with chronic pain and the consolation that comes from making sense of it. I ask what we can learn from loneliness and loss about the value of human life. And I explore how we can fail with grace, confront injustice, and search for meaning in the face of despair. Drawing on ancient and modern philosophy, as well as fiction, comedy, social science, and personal essay, Life is Hard is a book for this moment—a work of solace and compassion.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In the Land of Pain

Kieran Setiya Why did I love this book?

Alphonse Daudet’s notebooks on pain are among the most explicit, honest, and consoling treatments of chronic illness ever written. Daudet was a contemporary of Flaubert, admired as a novelist of provincial France by such luminaries as Charles Dickens and Henry James. Like Flaubert, Daudet suffered from syphilis and he planned to write a book about his experience. He died before he could do that, but his notebooks survive. As someone who lives with chronic pain, I cherish Daudet’s frank but never saccharine advice and his commitment to compassion for others in the teeth of his own suffering.

By Alphonse Daudet, Julian Barnes (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Land of Pain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A “startling [and] splendid” book (The New York Times Book Review) from one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century on his years of enduring severe illness—a classic in the literary annals of human suffering. • Edited and translated by the bestselling, Booker Prize winning author of The Sense of an Ending.

“Pain, you must be everything for me. Let me find in you all those foreign lands you will not let me visit.” —Alphonse Daudet

Daudet (1840–1897) was a greatly admired writer during his lifetime, praised by Dickens and Henry James. In the prime of his life, he…


Book cover of Wittgenstein's Mistress

Kieran Setiya Why did I love this book?

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel by David Markson that takes the form of a journal written by a woman living on a beach who believes she is the only person left on earth. It is made up of short paragraphs—often no more than a sentence—that record her lonely travels, like a surrealist Robinson Crusoe. At the risk of spoiling a conceptual twist, what begins as a metaphysical examination of language and the self turns out to be a study of grief and betrayal. If you are lonely, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is wonderful company: captivating, playful, intellectually rich, and unexpectedly moving.

By David Markson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wittgenstein's Mistress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson or anyone else has ever written before. It is the story of a woman who is convinced and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well that she is the only person left on earth.

Presumably she is mad. And yet so appealing is her character, and so witty and seductive her narrative voice, that we will follow her hypnotically as she unloads the intellectual baggage of a lifetime in a series of irreverent meditations on everything and everybody from Brahms to sex to Heidegger to Helen of Troy. And as…


Book cover of If You Should Fail: Why Success Eludes Us and Why It Doesn't Matter

Kieran Setiya Why did I love this book?

I don’t know if misery loves company but I’m convinced that failure does. When their projects fall flat, my kid likes nothing better than to hear about the wreckage of mine: romantic fiascos, flunked tests, athletic defeats. Joe Moran’s “book of solace,” If You Should Fail, is in part a compendium of stories like these, in part an effort to dislodge our tendency to think of human beings as winners or losers at all. “To call any life a failure, or a success, is to miss the infinite granularity, the inexhaustible miscellany of all lives,” Moran writes. “A life can’t really succeed or fail at all; it can only be lived.” 

By Joe Moran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If You Should Fail as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'There is an honesty and a clarity in Joe Moran's book If You Should Fail that normalises and softens the usual blows of life that enables us to accept and live with them rather than be diminished/wounded by them' Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass

'Full of wise insight and honesty. Moran manages to be funny, erudite and kindly: a rare - and compelling - combination. This is the essential antidote to a culture obsessed with success. Read it' Madeleine Bunting

Failure is the small print in life's terms and conditions.

Covering everything from examination…


Book cover of The Unfortunates

Kieran Setiya Why did I love this book?

One of the most profound attempts to capture grief in prose is due to the British experimental novelist B. S. Johnson. Published in 1969, The Unfortunates is a book in a box: twenty-seven booklets to be read in any order, except for “First” and “Last.” Its narrator is a journalist returning to a city he last knew seven years ago, visiting an old friend, Tony, who later died of metastatic cancer. The visit triggers memories that arrive in random order, scattered through the day’s events as chance dictates. Grief has no narrative order, the book in a box seems to warn; and any closure is temporary. Grief can be opened and reshuffled again and again. 

By B.S. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Unfortunates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

B.S. Johnson's lost classic has been showered with praise: New York Magazine named The Unfortunates one of their Ten Best Books of 2008, listed in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2008, and The Los Angeles Times declared it to be "his most daring work."

A legendary 1960s experiment in form, The Unfortunates is B. S. Johnson's famous "book in a box," in which the chapters are presented unbound, to be read in any order the reader chooses. A sportswriter, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when…


Book cover of Responsibility for Justice

Kieran Setiya Why did I love this book?

Although it is more academic than the others I’ve recommended, this book is both practical and urgent: it asks how we’re responsible for facing up to the structures of injustice in which we are implicated—the legacies of colonialism and slavery, the ongoing catastrophe of climate change. Young’s answer is that responsibility here is not about guilt or shame but the obligation to work for change, an obligation we can only meet through collective action, working with others to transform the systems around us. Young’s argument is rich, provocative, and inspiring.

By Iris Marion Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Responsibility for Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the noted political philosopher Iris Marion Young died in 2006, her death was mourned as the passing of "one of the most important political philosophers of the past quarter-century" (Cass Sunstein) and as an important and innovative thinker working at the conjunction of a number of important topics: global justice; democracy and difference; continental political theory; ethics and international affairs; and gender, race and public policy.

In her long-awaited Responsibility for Justice, Young discusses our responsibilities to address "structural" injustices in which we among many are implicated (but for which we not to blame), often by virtue of participating…


You might also like...

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


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5 book lists we think you will like!

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