The best books on cultivating meaning in the face of cultural and societal absurdity

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up in a rural area influenced by both Protestantism and Catholicism, I found that the daily habits of devoutly religious people were often contradictory to the basic practices of their religion. I also discovered that people were every day forced to adjust their beliefs and behaviors depending on which microcosm within the culture they were in at a given moment participating. People unable to play by these ever-shifting cultural rules would quickly lose respect. This scared the hell out of me, as I was never good at adjusting to different social situations on the fly, but I also found it interesting, and it therefore became the primary theme of my book. 

I wrote...


By Robert Pettus,

Book cover of Abry.

What is my book about?

Life in Abry is just about as normal as it can get. Church, school, football games-those things make up the pillars of the community. But not everyone fits in, and that includes teenager Edward Marsh, who doesn't want to fit in. Edward just wants to be himself, and if that means hanging out in a graveyard with his friends or pulling a prank on the uptight football coach, the town can deal with it. This tale of small-town life set at the turn of the century will have you yearning for a simpler time. And it will make you realize that simpler times were never really all that simple.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Robert Pettus Why did I love this book?

I’m not sure anyone has written with such clarity about the everyday horror of social/cultural alienation better than Shirley Jackson.

I loved reading about the main character, Merricat, and her trips into town to purchase groceries and other common household goods. The pariah-like way she is received by the allegedly typical townsfolk is a theme I—admittedly to a much lesser degree—wanted to include in my own writing.  

By Shirley Jackson,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked We Have Always Lived in the Castle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

Book cover of The Metamorphosis

Robert Pettus Why did I love this book?

If there’s one thing human societies tend to fear to the point of hatred, it’s a stark departure from what is considered normal in terms of physical appearance.

Most people prefer rules and routine; they prefer order even if that order is nonsensical or illogical. Anything that breaks with this routine—even in terms of its appearance—is a source of stress and thereafter banishment. Kafka best describes this bizarre reality when Gregor Samsa wakes up and realizes he’s transformed into a massive bug.

I think most teens probably, at some point in their life, feel similarly to Gregor.  

By Franz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (translator),

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Metamorphosis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

With this  startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first sentence, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The  Metamorphosis. It is the story of a  young man who, transformed overnight into a giant  beetlelike insect, becomes an object of disgrace to  his family, an outsider in his own home, a  quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though  absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The  Metamorphosis has taken its place as one  of the most widely read and influential works of  twentieth-century…

Book cover of The Body

Robert Pettus Why did I love this book?

In my opinion, Stephen King is even better at crafting coming-of-age tales than he is at horror, and The Body might be his best.

I love how this book portrays the adventures of childhood—being chased by dogs, walking the train tracks, puffing cigarettes around a fire as the night sets in—as being totally unique and new, exciting experiences. This story, in my view, is the perfect template for any good childhood adventure story. 

By Stephen King,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King’s timeless novella “The Body”—originally published in his 1982 short story collection Different Seasons, and adapted into the 1986 film classic Stand by Me—is now available as a stand-alone publication.

It’s 1960 in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. Ray Brower, a boy from a nearby town, has disappeared, and twelve-year-old Gordie Lachance and his three friends set out on a quest to find his body along the railroad tracks. During the course of their journey, Gordie, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern…

Book cover of Notes from Underground

Robert Pettus Why did I love this book?

Does it even matter whether you’re right or wrong? Is it important to be honest with yourself? Is fairness something anyone should value? Is it important to have good manners?

Questions like these spring into the mind of the reader continuously while working through the pages of Notes from the Underground. Though Dostoevsky doesn’t necessarily provide clear answers to any of these questions, his Underground Man is certainly ready and willing to brood on them. It’s always a little terrifying remembering how relatable he can be. 

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky give us a brilliantly faithful rendition of this classic novel, in all its tragedy and tormented comedy. In this second edition, they have updated their translation in honor of the 200th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birth.

One of the most remarkable characters in literature, the unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky's most revolutionary novel is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man’s essentially irrational nature.

Book cover of Small Gods

Robert Pettus Why did I love this book?

Most all of Terry Pratchett’s books do an excellent job of turning absurdity into humor while remaining thought provoking, and this one is probably my favorite.

In terms of style and humor, I really found myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams while reading this, which is obviously good company to be in. Essentially, the book deals with the question: “What happens to religion when no one believes in its God?”  

By Terry Pratchett,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Small Gods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fans of Sir Terry Pratchett will love this stunning graphic novel adaptation of his bestselling standalone Discworld novel Small Gods. Beautifully brought to life by illustrator Ray Friesen, it takes a close look at religion's institutions, its people, its practices and its role in politics in Pratchett's unique way...

'An intriguing satire on institutionalized religion corrupted by power...' - Independent
'Deftly weaves themes of forgiveness, belief and spiritual regeneration' - The Times
'I loved this book. I wish it could go on and on and on because it was so enjoyable to read. I wish more books are like this…

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A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

Book cover of A Sparrow Falls

Vicki Olsen Author Of A Sparrow Falls

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Air Force brat World War 2 junkie Gallivanter Beret-wearing Francophile Book hoarder

Vicki's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In this book set against the backdrop of a changing America, Sarah must find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past and come to terms with her future. Sarah, a young woman from the rural town of Tolerance, Arkansas, has endured an impoverished and painful childhood.

But now, as the innocence of the 1950s transforms into the turbulent 1960s, Sarah must find the strength to overcome her traumas, forgive those who have wronged her, and discover her true self. With its moving and often disturbing narrative, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman's journey…

A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

What is this book about?

A moving, sometimes disturbing, beautifully written book...Amazon Customer Review
Set in Arkansas as the innocence of the 1950s morphs into the turbulent ‘60s, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman emerging from an impoverished and traumatic childhood as she finds the inner strength to overcome her past. Te ghosts of the past and come to terms with her future is in the strength to forgive those who have wronged her?
Content Advisory: This book is intended for mature audiences and contains child sexual abuse and disturbing imagery.

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