The best books that explore the human condition

Who am I?

In a sense, I have been working on the material for my book, Life, Death, and Other Inconvenient Truths, for my entire life. The 38 short chapters that comprise it span a range of topics: alphabetically, from ambition and anxiety, through love and mathematics, to war and youth. For whatever it is worth, I have had first-hand experience (in three languages, on three continents) learning, researching, teaching, enjoying, suffering, and fighting — in other words, living — all but one of them (the exception is one that technically cannot be lived through, but can still be pondered and written about). My five recommendations reflect this life-long interest in the human condition, which I am excited to share with you.

I wrote...

Life, Death, and Other Inconvenient Truths: A Realist's View of the Human Condition

By Shimon Edelman,

Book cover of Life, Death, and Other Inconvenient Truths: A Realist's View of the Human Condition

What is my book about?

This book … is a kind of reference volume, a partial one for sure, for making sense of the human world and of the hard work of human soul-making, or simply life. The entries are cross-referenced and contain quite a few notes and pointers to primary sources, all collected at the end of the book. Each chapter ends with a list of films, music, stories, and places—any product of human endeavor or feature of the natural environment that may help illuminate its theme.

No synthesis is offered for the list of inconvenient truths collected here, for the simple reason that there isn’t—nor can there be—a single underlying cause that makes life what it is. If this book has a central thesis, it’s one that is neither a revelation, nor a secret: the human condition has much room for improvement. Working out possible ways of improving it is left as an exercise for the reader.

The books I picked & why

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The Iron Dragon's Daughter

By Michael Swanwick,

Book cover of The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Why this book?

How I wish I had read this book as a teenager! Swanwick’s brilliant tale of a human changeling, stolen by the Sidhe and growing up on her own in a hard world that resembles ours all too closely (think jet-powered dragons and the all-powerful rich who corrupt people’s souls) is the best coming of age story, here or in the Other Lands. The closing pages will leave you shaken, and maybe a tiny bit wiser about our shared condition.

Hard to Be a God

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko (translator)

Book cover of Hard to Be a God

Why this book?

Can a society as mired in misery and oppression as ours be helped by a few well-intentioned “progressors” from another world? You land in secret, wielding godlike powers (remember Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and possessing a perfect understanding of sociology and historical dynamics, only to find how hard it is to be a god. What would you do?

Dialectic of Enlightenment

By Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Edmund Jephcott (translator)

Book cover of Dialectic of Enlightenment

Why this book?

The standard liberal (and neoliberal) response to those who complain that enlightenment and progress leave behind precisely those people whom they are supposed to help the most has been to double down and demand more progress. In this 20th century classic of political-sociological analysis, Horkheimer and Adorno show that the concept of enlightenment as interpreted by the liberal politicians, and as touted by them to the masses whom they hold in thrall, is self-undermining.

The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy

By Murray Bookchin,

Book cover of The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy

Why this book?

A better world is possible — just not through the kind of progress touted by liberal politicians. In this 1982 collection, Bookchin sketches such a new world, based on his concept of social ecology — a prescient integration of the people’s desires for a better life, for personal freedom, and for coexistence, mutual aid, and respect.

Always Coming Home

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of Always Coming Home

Why this book?

This book, by one of the greatest American authors of all time, is an “archaeology of the future”: a record of the daily life, the customs, the beliefs, the poetry and stories, and the spirit of a people who live in a far-future California that is at the same time deeply connected to the past of its original inhabitants. Of all the utopias that are on offer in world literature, this is the one that makes the most sense to the social scientist in me, and also the one that I would like the most to wake up in someday. This would never come to pass, though — unless we start building it now, together.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the human condition, philosophy, and science?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the human condition, philosophy, and science.

The Human Condition Explore 20 books about the human condition
Philosophy Explore 296 books about philosophy
Science Explore 116 books about science

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, The Shadow-Line, and Modernity and the Holocaust if you like this list.