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

The Books I Picked & Why

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. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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.”

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.


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. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists