The best books on understanding the human condition

Jane Stork Author Of Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom
By Jane Stork

Who am I?

I was born and raised in rural Western Australia, married young, traveled with my geologist husband in the Outback until our children were born, and was settling down to becoming a housewife and mother in a Perth suburb when an Indian guru crossed my path. In no time at all, I packed up my family and we moved to India. Four years later I followed my guru when he went to America, and four years after that, I found myself behind bars. Understanding what led me there, and facing the consequences, was to occupy me for many years to come. I continue to have a deep and abiding interest in what makes us tick and why we do the things we do.


I wrote...

Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom

By Jane Stork,

Book cover of Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom

What is my book about?

Breaking the Spell is Jane Stork's extraordinary life story. Equally moving and disturbing, it chronicles the rise and fall of the religion of Rajneeshism and the Rolls Royce guru, and Jane's part in the events that led to its collapse.

The books I picked & why

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

Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann,

Book cover of 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. 

Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Joseph and His Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE BOOK- As Germany dissolved into the nightmare of Nazism, Thomas Mann was at work on this epic recasting of the the great Bible story. Joseph, his brothers and his father Jacob, are at the prototypes of all humanity and their story is the story of life itself. Mann has taken one of the great simple chronicles of literature and filled it with psychological scope and range- its men and women are not remote figures in the Book of Genesis, but founders of states in a fresh, realisic world akin to our own .


Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

By Hannah Arendt,

Book cover of 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.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Eichmann in Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A profound and documented analysis ... Bound to stir our minds and trouble our consciences' Chicago Tribune

Hannah Arendt's authoritative and stunning report on the trial of German Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963. This revised edition includes material that came to light after the trial, as well as Arendt's postscript commenting on the controversy that arose over her book. A major journalistic triumph by an intellectual of singular influence, Eichmann in Jerusalem is as shocking as it is informative - a meticulous and unflinching look at one…


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

By Arno Gruen,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Arno Gruen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Betrayal of the Self as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Love or power ? these are the opposing poles of a choice every child is compelled to make, very early in its life, in a drama that sets it irrevocably on its path through life. This startling new insight into a formative experience fundamental to our development is the subject of THE BETRAYAL OF THE SELF, Dr. Arno Gruen's passionately argued contribution to the psychoanalytic view of the human soul, and what distorts it into pathology. ~~~~ What happens to an infant when it learns that the love it craves from its parents is available only at the price of…


Modernity and the Holocaust

By Zygmunt Bauman,

Book cover of 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”.

Modernity and the Holocaust

By Zygmunt Bauman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Modernity and the Holocaust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new afterword to this edition, "The Duty to Remember-But What?" tackles difficult issues of guilt and innocence on the individual and societal levels. Zygmunt Bauman explores the silences found in debates about the Holocaust, and asks what the historical facts of the Holocaust tell us about the hidden capacities of present-day life. He finds great danger in such phenomena as the seductiveness of martyrdom; going to extremes in the name of safety; the insidious effects of tragic memory; and efficient, "scientific" implementation of the death penalty. Bauman writes, "Once the problem of the guilt of the Holocaust perpetrators has…


Bauman: A Biography

By Izabela Wagner,

Book cover of 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.

Bauman: A Biography

By Izabela Wagner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bauman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Global thinker, public intellectual and world-famous theorist of 'liquid modernity', Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was a scholar who, despite forced migration, built a very successful academic career and, after retirement, became a prolific and popular writer and an intellectual talisman for young people everywhere. He was one of those rare scholars who, grey-haired and in his eighties, had his finger on the pulse of the youth.

This is the first comprehensive biography of Bauman's life and work. Izabela Wagner returns to Bauman's native Poland and recounts his childhood in an assimilated Polish Jewish family and the school experiences shaped by anti-Semitism.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in sociology, the Holocaust, and the human condition?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about sociology, the Holocaust, and the human condition.

Sociology Explore 74 books about sociology
The Holocaust Explore 203 books about the Holocaust
The Human Condition Explore 22 books about the human condition

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Night, Arauco, and Hangwoman if you like this list.