The best books for grasping how language and symbols relate to the human condition

Who am I?

Corey Anton is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University, Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics, Past President of the Media Ecology Association, and a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute. He is an award-winning teacher and author. His research spans the fields of media ecology, semiotics, phenomenology, stoicism, death studies, the philosophy of communication, and multidisciplinary communication theory.


I wrote...

Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism

By Corey Anton,

Book cover of Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism

What is my book about?

Sources of Significance confronts consumer capitalism and religious fundamentalism as symptoms of death denial and degenerated cultural heroism. It outlines heroisms worth wanting and reveals the forms of gratitude, courage, and purpose that emerge as people come to terms with the meaning of mortality. Corey Anton opens a contemporary dialogue spanning theism, atheism, agnosticism, and spiritualist humanism by re-examining basic topics such as language, self-esteem, ambiguity, guilt, ritual, sacrifice, and transcendence. Acknowledging the growing need for theologies that are compatible with modern science, Anton shows how today's consumerist lifestyles distort and trivialize the need for self-worth, and he argues that each person faces the genuinely heroic tasks of contributing to the world's beauty, harmony, and resources; of forgiving the cosmos for self-conscious finitude; and of gratefully accepting the ambiguity of life's gifts.

The books I picked & why

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Steps to an Ecology of Mind

By Gregory Bateson,

Book cover of Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Why this book?

Gregory Bateson, an intellectual maverick, had an evolutionary rule named after him when he was a teenager, (his father was a famed geneticist), was the formulator, along with Jurgen Ruesch, of the double-bind hypothesis of schizophrenia, and was a pioneer in the field of mammalian communication. Given its wide range of address to issues within evolutionary biology, psychiatry, anthropology, systems theory, cybernetics, and communication theory, this is a classic “must read” collection of short essays. Bateson’s unrelentingly original and provocative analyses provoke thought and defy any easy categorization. At the very least, he shows how mammalian play, as multileveled interaction, paves the way for the evolution of human language, and also, how human interaction, with its multiple logical types and different kinds of learning, occurs at various levels of abstraction.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

By Gregory Bateson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Steps to an Ecology of Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gregory Bateson was a philosopher, anthropologist, photographer, naturalist, and poet, as well as the husband and collaborator of Margaret Mead. With a new foreword by his daughter Mary Katherine Bateson, this classic anthology of his major work will continue to delight and inform generations of readers.

"This collection amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. . . . Bateson has come to this position during a career that carried him not only into anthropology, for which he was first trained, but into psychiatry, genetics, and communication theory. . . . He . . . examines the nature of…


The Birth and Death of Meaning

By Ernest Becker,

Book cover of The Birth and Death of Meaning

Why this book?

Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist whose synthesizing of psychology, sociology, and anthology is unrivaled. This book, technically the first in a trilogy of his mature works, paves the way for his Pulitzer Prize wining book, The Denial of Death. Essential reading for anyone who is interested in a broad-based general theory of the human being, this book helps readers appreciate the vital role that symbols play in human life. It reveals how the human organism, a symbolic primate, grows to epic proportions and takes on new moral dimensions through symbolic activity. This is also important background reading for what today is known as, Terror Management Theory, Becker’s most substantial empirical legacy.

The Birth and Death of Meaning

By Ernest Becker,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Birth and Death of Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uses the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, sociology and psychiatry to explain what makes people act the way they do.


Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

By Erving Goffman,

Book cover of Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

Why this book?

Erving Goffman was a Canadian sociologist and the founder of the “dramaturgical” tradition within sociology, where metaphors of the stage and theatre are brought to the analysis of everyday life. This particular book is a collection of his early essays concerning “encounters,” or what happens when people, wittingly or unwittingly, come face-to-face and share information, handle interpersonal incidents, and manage identities. With surgeon-like precision, Goffman engages in “micro-sociology” analyses, nuanced descriptions of the ritual expression games in which interactants engage when they come into each other’s presence. The book is a delight to read partly due to Goffman’s uncanny ability to verbally capture the most subtle of expressions and to sum up relevant dynamics within interpersonal interaction; many of his sentences bear the fine-grade clarity of high-definition TV.

Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

By Erving Goffman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moment and their men," writes Erving Goffman in the introduction to his groundbreaking 1967 Interaction Ritual, a study of face-to-face interaction in natural settings, that class of events which occurs during co-presence and by virtue of co-presence. The ultimate behavioral materials are the glances, gestures, positionings, and verbal statements that people continuously feed into situations, whether intended or not.

A sociology of occasions is here advocated. Social organization is the central theme, but what is organized is the co-mingling of persons and the temporary interactional enterprises that can arise therefrom. A normatively stabilized…


Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

By Susanne K. Langer,

Book cover of Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

Why this book?

Susanne K. Langer was a philosopher of aesthetics, and a specialist in the nature of symbolism and language. This classic book, dedicated to Alfred North Whitehead, contains her now somewhat famous distinction between “presentational forms” and “discursive forms,” which refers, roughly to symbolism such as sculpture and architecture which present much-at-once, and symbolism such as music and language which disclose their meaning linearly over time. She also brilliantly lays out her views on “Language,” where in a chapter by that name, she critiques instinct theories, challenges naïve views, and speculates on how human beings are evolutionary descendants of singing, dancing, pantomiming apes.

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

By Susanne K. Langer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Philosophy in a New Key as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Modern theories of meaning usually culminate in a critique of science. This book presents a study of human intelligence beginning with a semantic theory and leading into a critique of music.

By implication it sets up a theory of all the arts; the transference of its basic concepts to other arts than music is not developed, but it is sketched, mainly in the chapter on artistic import. Thoughtful readers of the original edition discovered these far-reaching ideas quickly enough as the career of the book shows: it is as applicable to literature, art and music as to the field of…


The Rhetoric of Religion

By Kenneth Burke,

Book cover of The Rhetoric of Religion

Why this book?

Kenneth Burke was Shakespeare scholar, biblical scholar, poet, novelist, literary critic, rhetorical theorist, the father of “Dramatism,” and a ferocious homegrown, self-taught intellect, and this book is Burke at his best. It boldly addresses the vital role that language plays in human life and religious thought, advocates a thoroughgoing study of theology not to assess any veracity therein, but rather, as a specimen of language use, for, whatever else theology may be, it is, at the least, verbal, and, the study of religious language reveals much about human motives and self-understanding. This book also touches upon some of the interesting relations between money, guilt, and the Christian notion of redemption. It ends with an “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” which is a lengthy mind-blowing fictional dialogue set in Heaven between “The Lord” and “Satan” regarding “the word-animal,” and it playfully draws out important connections between language, negativity, property rights, time, and the human experience of freedom.

The Rhetoric of Religion

By Kenneth Burke,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"But the point of Burke's work, and the significance of his achievement, is not that he points out that religion and language affect each other, for this has been said before, but that he proceeds to demonstrate how this is so by reference to a specific symbolic context. After a discussion 'On Words and The Word,' he analysess verbal action in St. Augustine's Confessions. He then discusses the first three chapters of Genesis, and ends with a brilliant and profound 'Prologue in Heaven,' an imaginary dialogue between the Lord and Satan in which he proposes that we begin our study…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the human condition, the meaning of life, and language?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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