The Best Books On Understanding The Human Condition

By Jane Stork

The Books I Picked & Why

Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

Joseph and His Brothers

Why this book?

This is my most favorite book. If I were shipwrecked on a desert island and could only take one book with me, Joseph and His Brothers would be that book. Taking the famous biblical tale as his inspiration, Thomas Mann creates a magnificently told epic story of cunning and deceit, true love, the careless vanity of youth, murderous sibling rivalry, fortuitous chance, human kindness, exclusion and imprisonment, seduction, destruction, power, fulfillment, and redemption.

I had begun reading Joseph and His Brothers shortly before my arrest and so it was that I read this book for the first time in the confines of a prison cell, where Joseph’s story took on new meaning and was both a comfort and an inspiration to me. 


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Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

By Hannah Arendt

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Why this book?

Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of the German Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, confronts us with the uncomfortable truth of the banality of evil. Everything in us struggles against the concept that evil can be banal. We want to shout out that evil is monstrous and that an evil person like Adolf Eichmann, responsible for organizing the transport of millions of people to the Nazi death camps, could not possibly be anything other than a monster, certainly not an ordinary citizen like you and me. But no, Hannah Arendt shows us that he was indeed just that; an ordinary, dutiful citizen.

I read this book when I was coming to terms with what I had done and was beginning to understand the imperative for individual autonomy; true autonomy that roots us in our humanity.


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The Betrayal of the Self: The Fear of Autonomy in Men and Women

By Arno Gruen

The Betrayal of the Self: The Fear of Autonomy in Men and Women

Why this book?

Have you ever wondered why it is that humankind seems unable to learn from its past mistakes? That in spite of all the amazing progress western civilization has made in the last few hundred years, we persist in waging wars, both hot and cold; in building ever bigger and deadlier weapons of mass destruction; in creating new enemies to kill, torture, and maim with our fantastic weapons? How can it be that we continue in these life-negating practices when so much speaks against them?

I know of no other person who so clearly understands and can so clearly describe the circumstances that have led us to this self-destructive place in our development as individuals and as a species. Arno Gruen illuminates perhaps the most basic impediment to contentment, creativity, peace, and harmony in our modern world. Reading him not only brings light into the darkness, it also brings with it a deep breath of life-affirming fresh air.


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Modernity and the Holocaust

By Zygmunt Bauman

Modernity and the Holocaust

Why this book?

This is a profound and disturbing work written after reading his wife’s account of how she, her mother and sister, all of Jewish origin, survived the Nazi/war years in Warsaw (Winter in the Morning by Janina Bauman (1986)). Bauman exposes the popular fallacy that the Holocaust was a singular event, an unfortunate tear in the fabric of civilization, demonstrating with devastating clarity that it was, in fact, a (logical) product of modernism: “Without modern civilization and its most central essential achievements, there would be no Holocaust”.


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Bauman: A Biography

By Izabela Wagner

Bauman: A Biography

Why this book?

I had never heard of Zygmunt Bauman when I picked up this book, but then I couldn’t put it down. By the time I had finished reading it, I was filled with the deepest appreciation and respect for both the man, and his biographer. Bauman’s life spanned almost a hundred years and his story is also the story of Europe, from 1925-2017.

Izabela Wagner has done monumental work to produce a biography worthy of its subject. Her loving respect for Bauman is tangible and adds greatly to the pleasure of reading the story of this extraordinary man’s life: Polish Jew, refugee, soldier, sociologist; an intellectual who spent his life reflecting on what he saw, and speaking and writing about it with pristine clarity.


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