The best books for grappling with what it is to be human

Who am I?

Who knows why, but I have always been enticed by absurdities, paradoxes, incongruities — I use them in my talks, articles, and books — of everyday lives, our humanity, and mysteries of our ‘going on.’ Reflections on being human can be triggered by humour such as Cambridge’s Beyond the Fringe and New York’s sitcom Seinfeld — within which I wallow — as well as by lengthy philosophical works and novels. My work draws on bafflements: for example, shampoo instructions “Lather, rinse, repeat” (making shampoo-ing infinite?); Barmaid to Peter Cook, “Bitter?”, reply being “Just tired”— and Samuel Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Yes, I go on.


I wrote...

Humanism: A Beginner's Guide

By Peter Cave,

Book cover of Humanism: A Beginner's Guide

What is my book about?

Why should we believe in God without any evidence? How can there be meaning in life when death is final? With historical adherents including such thinkers as Einstein, Freud, Philip Pullman, and Frank Zappa, the central quest of "Humanism" is to make sense of such questions, explaining the ethical and metaphysical by appealing to shared human values, rationality, and tolerance. Essential reading for atheists, agnostics, ignostics, freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, and believers too, this Beginner's Guide will explain all aspects of the Humanist philosophy whilst providing an alternative and valuable conception of life without religion.

The book also has a personal flavour, it is as challenging to the reductionism of the sciences as it is to the claims of religions. It is as thoughtful on our existence as on our extinction. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nausea

Peter Cave Why did I love this book?

Thousands of years ago – I exaggerate a little – when pre-university, I heard of Nausea from a library assistant. I warmed to Sartre’s sense of the weirdness of consciousness, surrounded by the strangeness of physical objects and conscious beings, ‘the Other.’ How to relate?

Nausea — and some very different works by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell — enabled my discovery that I was a philosopher, good or bad. It led me to university philosophy in London, then Cambridge, and the works of, Ah, Wittgenstein. One thing that I do not regret in my life is engagement with philosophy. “I have not looked back” as they say — which means that I have looked back, yet without recoil at that discovery.

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nausea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nausea is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence. In impressionistic, diary form he ruthlessly catalogs his every feeling and sensation. His thoughts culminate in a pervasive, overpowering feeling of nausea which "spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time - the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain."

Winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (though he declined to accept it), Jean-Paul Sartre - philosopher, critic, novelist, and…


Book cover of Through the Looking-Glass

Peter Cave Why did I love this book?

Many of us, when young, read Looking-Glass with Carroll’s first work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it was as an adult, eager to reflect philosophically, that I began to appreciate deep puzzles within our language and consciousness – and these are more prominent in Looking-Glass.  

I taught philosophy for many years  oops, not true, I don’t think philosophy can be taught. Rather, I encourage people to step back and think philosophically by confronting paradoxes, using their imagination, and looking beyond appearances. I often recommend Looking-Glass to achieve a sense of bewilderment and the delicious desire to dig into and question everyday assumptions of living.

By Lewis Caroll,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Through the Looking-Glass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alice, who is bored, falls asleep in a chair and dream that it happens on the other side of the mirror of the show. The mirror of the world is both the English countryside, a chessboard, and the upside down world, where you have to run very fast to stay put. Alice came across chess pieces (queen, knight) and characters of children's culture of the Victorian era. One finds in this novel the mix of poetry, humor and nonsense that makes the charm of Lewis Carroll. It is better to know the basic rules of chess to appreciate the subtleties…


Book cover of The Clown

Peter Cave Why did I love this book?

The title was sufficient to draw me in for I warm to life’s absurdities, and clowning is one form of absurdity. For decades, I have been actively involved with Humanism, so the absurdities in Clown of the hypocrisies in Catholicism naturally appealed, yet more so were the exposures of hypocrisies in love, relationships, and social and political pronouncements indeed, in being human. Yes, Catholicism is attacked here, but so, also, Humanity. To quote:  “Goodbye,” I said, “and thank you for so much humanity.”

By Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Acclaimed entertainer Hans Schneir collapses when his beloved Marie leaves him because he won’t marry her within the Catholic Church. The desertion triggers a searing re-examination of his life—the loss of his sister during the war, the demands of his millionaire father and the hypocrisies of his mother, who first fought to “save” Germany from the Jews, then worked for “reconciliation”
afterwards.

Heinrich Böll’s gripping consideration of how to overcome guilt and live up to idealism—how to find something to believe in—gives stirring evidence of why he was such an unwelcome presence in post-War German consciousness . . . and…


Book cover of Justine

Peter Cave Why did I love this book?

In days of youth, I would have short holidays on Greek Islands and in countries such as Turkey and Egypt. Later, I briefly lectured in philosophy at the University of Khartoum. The atmosphere of those places — the cultures tied to religions, the hazy hot climate, the pace — well, I found those in Justine (set in Alexandria). The book still appeals to bringing out the fluidity of relationships, ways of seeing others, of interpretations. It is the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet; other volumes look at the same events, but through the eyes of other characters.

By Lawrence Durrell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Egyptian city of Alexandria once boasted the world's greatest library, home to scholars dedicated solely to the pursuit of knowledge. But on the eve of World War II, the obsessed characters in this mesmerizing novel find that their pursuits lead only to bedrooms in which each seeks to know-and possess-the other.


Book cover of Phaedrus

Peter Cave Why did I love this book?

I frequently return to Plato and his portrayal of Socrates. The Phaedrus intrigues me. It is a difficult work for piecing together, yet with fascinating thoughts, taking us from rhetoric to erotic love to the search for Beauty, Truth, the Good.  What it is to be human continues to baffle me — not least because we often do have a sense of 'going beyond' the mystical. Yes — I do write as an atheist.  

By Plato,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Phaedrus is widely recognized as one of Plato's most profound and beautiful works. It takes the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus and its ostensible subject is love, especially homoerotic love. This new translation is accompanied by an introduction, further reading, and full notes on the text and translation that discuss the structure of the dialogue and elucidate issues that might puzzle the modern reader.


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Plato?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Plato.

Philosophy Explore 1,487 books about philosophy
Psychoanalysis Explore 84 books about psychoanalysis
Plato Explore 59 books about Plato