The best novels to make you think deeper about the human condition

Who am I?

I am a journalist and a novelist. I was both Forbes Magazine’s longest serving foreign correspondent – having served 18 years in London as their European Bureau Chief – and wrote the feel-good international best-seller The Hundred-Foot Journey, a novel that Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey made into a much-loved 2014 film starring Helen Mirren. These twin careers have shaped my approach to writing in that I believe a good micro-story (fiction) should also make astute macro points (journalism). So, the journeys my characters undertake in my novels are also trying to address points about the world or life or humanity at large.

I wrote...

The Man with No Borders

By Richard C. Morais,

Book cover of The Man with No Borders

What is my book about?

My father was a world-class fly fisherman and I started writing this book – about an aging Spanish private banker who is dying of a brain tumor and has to make amends – two years before my actual father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I now realize that my psyche was preparing me for my father's coming death and this book was my attempt to resolve his many contradictions. Dad was both the most genuinely loving and big-hearted and generous father a man could have, and yet, at times, also intensely greedy and selfish.

In this novel, I tried to process these many contradictions in the father I so loved, by casting light on the psychic wounds and secrets that often sit at the heart of the 'human condition.'

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of An Artist of the Floating World

Why this book?

The Nobel-prize winning laureate has written many more famous books dealing with the human condition, most notably The Remains of the Day and Never Let me Go, but this is, to my mind, his best rumination on humanity's familiar ache. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is a flawless book and similarly themed, but there is something about the post-war regrets, delusions, and self-justifications of the aging Japanese artist Masuji Ono that just slay me and make me want to weep. Ishiguro is of course the king of unreliable narrators, so I don't want to give away the big reveal here, but how denial of the truth and self-delusion can misdirect us in life, is at the core of this masterful insight into the human condition.

The Alexandria Quartet

By Lawrence Durrell,

Book cover of The Alexandria Quartet

Why this book?

I recently reread the novels that make up this 1950s quadrilogy - Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea - and was not only blown away by their lyricism, which holds up remarkably well, but also by Durrell's brilliant dissection of modern love and its psychic fallout. Gerald Durrell famously wrote the much-loved My Family and Other Animals, the book that turned me into a writer, but his more literary older brother nails the transcendent poetry and heartache at the core of our famished, eternal search for love. But he goes one better: through literary innovation, fixed beautifully in time in 1940s Alexandria, Lawrence Durrell reminds us that the 'facts' at the center of a life-changing event are shaped by the beholder and there is no singular reliable truth involving the affairs of the heart.

Independent People

By Halldor Laxness,

Book cover of Independent People

Why this book?

Written in the 1930s by Iceland's Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, Independent People is to my mind one of the great (out of favor) literary works of the 20th Century. This epic novel following sheep farmer Jónsson not only bridges the old world of witches and superstitions with Modern Man's agnostic search for independence, but, I think, also makes the Western case for the East's belief in 'karma.' At the heart of all our experiences in life, Laxness seems to be saying, sit not only the causes and effects of our personal behavior in this lifetime, but also the entire repository of our ancestors' behavior. This collective history has a long tail of consequence and can strike us at any moment.

The older I get, the more I believe this - so much of the hardships we experience today are beyond our control, and understanding how we got here, and what we need to do next, requires a profound understanding (and acknowledgment) of our ancestors' destructive actions and sins. 

What Belongs to You

By Garth Greenwell,

Book cover of What Belongs to You

Why this book?

This debut novel published in 2016 is about a gay American teaching English in Bulgaria in the post-Soviet era, a young man tragically drawn to a charming but doomed male hustler. Greenwell is, to my mind, one of the great contemporary writers emerging in the 21st Century, and he uses a musical ear and love of language to transport us to the broken heart of humanity, by letting us literally see and feel the transcendent event that can at times be at the core of sexual experiences. To simply label this book as "gay fiction" is a great disservice, as much to the critic as it is to Greenwell.

This exquisite writer's route into literature might be the earthy nature of sex, but his work is really about humanity's existential ache and our collective need to "fill the hole" in our hearts. Graphic gay erotica miraculously morphs under Garthwell's artistry into something deeply profound and moving about all of us.  

The Magic Mountain

By Thomas Mann,

Book cover of The Magic Mountain

Why this book?

This 20th Century masterpiece by the great Thomas Mann is not for the faint of heart, as it requires great powers of concentration, the antithesis of the Digital Age's distracted attention. But it is well worth the effort, for those with stamina, because all of humanity's foibles are found in The Magic Mountain, a book that remains incredibly relevant to our times. Mann's novel is about 20-something Hans Castorp, who visits his tubercular cousin residing in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps; intending to stay two weeks, Castorp winds up staying seven years, waylaid and fascinated by the colorful sanatorium residents he meets and his own imaginary health issues.

Written on the eve of WW1, the book chronicles a group of dissipated Europeans rotting from the inside out, and ends with Castorp swept up and renewed by nationalism and marching down the mountain to join Germany's militaristic cause, a theme relevant to our own dangerous times. But for me, almost more important, is the way Mann plays with our perception of time. In an eyeblink, two weeks turn into seven years, for young Castorp; for the reader, pages of The Magic Mountain are so exquisite they fly by in a nanosecond, while other passages, such as a description of an X-Ray, go on endlessly at a turgid pace and feel like they will never end. It's an extraordinary literary achievement.

Through the actual reading process, Mann makes us physically experience the elastic and existential nature of time, a book, for all its difficulties, will keep you thinking about the human condition long after the last page is turned.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in gay men, Japan, and Germany?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about gay men, Japan, and Germany.

Gay Men Explore 38 books about gay men
Japan Explore 299 books about Japan
Germany Explore 267 books about Germany

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, Silence of the Grave: An Inspector Erlendur Novel, and Prospero's Cell: Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu if you like this list.