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. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).


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

Book cover of Nausea

Why 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.

Through the Looking-Glass

By Lewis Caroll,

Book cover of Through the Looking-Glass

Why 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.

The Clown

By Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz (translator),

Book cover of The Clown

Why 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 Lawrence Durrell, Robert Ryan (illustrator),

Book cover of Justine

Why 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 Plato,

Book cover of Phaedrus

Why 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.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in psychoanalysis, Plato, and the Catholic Church?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about psychoanalysis, Plato, and the Catholic Church.

Psychoanalysis Explore 60 books about psychoanalysis
Plato Explore 44 books about Plato
The Catholic Church Explore 76 books about the Catholic Church

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Driver's Seat, Dirty Snow, and The Secret Garden if you like this list.