The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

Sallie Tisdale Author Of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze
By Sallie Tisdale

Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?

I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

The books I picked & why

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About Looking

By John Berger,

Book cover of About Looking

Why this book?

This is a book of essays about the act of looking, especially looking at photographs and paintings and animals and other people. Thus these are essays about history, memory, suffering, beauty, and the self. Berger had a generous spirit; he wrote often about the lives of peasants and spent the last forty years of his life in rural France. Berger gazed upon the world in all its forms with composure and curiosity. 

Autobiography of a Face

By Lucy Grealy,

Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

Why this book?

Grealy lost her jaw to cancer when she was a young girl and endured many reconstructive surgeries. Her facial deformities and how people reacted to her appearance determined the course of her life and art. “I was my face, I was ugliness. . . .Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point.” Grealy was a hard person to befriend (I knew her briefly), and she died of an accidental overdose after many years of addiction to pain medication. The work she left behind is not easily forgotten.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

By Erving Goffman,

Book cover of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Why this book?

Being present in the world is “a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery.” Goffman, a social anthropologist, wrote several books about social relationships, considering how we show ourselves in the office, in risky situations, in institutions, and in more intimate meetings. Is it possible to be present with another without in some way performing? Are we ever completely authentic? His answers to these questions are fascinating and disturbing.

Life of the Mind: One/Thinking, Two/Willing

By Hannah Arendt,

Book cover of Life of the Mind: One/Thinking, Two/Willing

Why this book?

The relentless and erudite work of Arendt never ceases to challenge me. In the books included here—Thinking and Willing—she explores what it means that the self knows itself to be a self, and how that knowledge refracts and splits upon encountering others, and then changes when returning to solitude again. I read her knowing that she has not just considered but felt her ideas. “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display. . . .Up to a point we can choose how to appear to others.”


By Andrea Long Chu,

Book cover of Females

Why this book?

A short, powerful investigation of how we construct and succumb to the lies of gender. Chu explores our fears of desire and how we allow politics to corrupt identity, believing gender to be so constructed that it can only be given and not created. Female is a quality we all carry, whatever label we use. Chu forces the reader to look in the mirror with a question instead of a statement, always uncertain about who that person really is. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in existential crisis, social psychology, and visual perception?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about existential crisis, social psychology, and visual perception.

Existential Crisis Explore 9 books about existential crisis
Social Psychology Explore 24 books about social psychology
Visual Perception Explore 10 books about visual perception

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like I Like Myself!, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, and Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation if you like this list.