The Best Books On The Meaning Of Life

The Books I Picked & Why

Man’s Search For Meaning

By Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search For Meaning

Why this book?

Published in 1946, this book asks us to think about the meaning of life from the point of view of the victims of the concentration camps—where Frankl himself struggled for life. It is a grim backdrop, but out of it Frankl distills a challenge to all of us. Quoting Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” he suggests that we ask, not what we expect from life, but what life expects from us. Reading Frankl helped me switch from “what is the meaning of it all?” (midlife crisis question!) to “now I will consciously and purposefully make my life meaningful.”


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Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

By Richard Rorty

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Why this book?

If you think too much and you’re not religious, you may have bumped up against a question that troubled much of my existence: on the one hand, I want (and sometimes fail) to live a life I can call morally good, but on the other hand, I don’t have any sort of theories or transcendental claims to base my “morally good” on. It’s hard to say you believe in X when your answer to “Why do you believe in X?” is, “because it’s X!” Rorty (on my reading) reminds us we don’t need to be torn apart by the intrusion of intellectual skepticism into our desire to act in a moral manner. To borrow from Nike, just do it.


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Eating Animals

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals

Why this book?

What is the meaning of life? We could take the question further by disposing of our blinkers and asking, what is the meaning of the other lives that may not look like ours? These lives consist of the millions of animals who die in the factory farms built to conceal their suffering and turn them into fungible objects, not lives. Safran’s book is an eye-opening exposition of how we have enslaved animals for food that we don’t even need in the 21st century—damaging ourselves and the environment in the process. One meaning of life: the value of letting other lives have meaning too.


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Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

Why this book?

This book is a profound description of the customs and life of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria before the political and religious changes brought by the British. Through Achebe’s work we see the philosophy, poetry, and even democratic practice of the Igbo—a salutary counter to assumptions that western culture is automatically superior. Are the Igbo “primitive”? What does this word mean? Maybe it seems strange to worship wooden idols, but to the Igbos it seems strange to say that God has a son when he has no wife. I found the Igbo’s meaning-making practices as profound as any.


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My Happy Life

By Lydia Millet

My Happy Life

Why this book?

My book club found this book depressing and shook their heads at my choice. I found it a fascinating account of a life that is meaningful for its owner. The protagonist is a woman dying in an abandoned mental hospital after years of abuse and neglect. And yet, she has a psychological condition that makes her infinitely compassionate towards others: she can only perceive goodwill and love. When she tells the story of her “happy life,” she even feels bad for her rapist. You will love or hate this book. But it will make you think.


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