The most recommended existential crisis books

Who picked these books? Meet our 11 experts.

11 authors created a book list connected to existential crisis, and here are their favorite existential crisis books.
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Book cover of Naïve. Super

Lee Crutchley Author Of Nobody Knows What They're Doing: The 10 Secrets All Artists Should Know

From my list on when you feel lost in life.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a writer from a small town in England that nobody has heard of, who now lives in Berlin. I have written books about depression, insomnia, creativity, and travel that have been translated into 20 languages. My book How to Be Happy (or at Least Less Sad) was called "a wonderful tool for anyone struggling with depression – or even just feeling blah" by Publishers Weekly. My latest book Nobody Knows What They're Doing is available now.

Lee's book list on when you feel lost in life

Lee Crutchley Why did Lee love this book?

Every book on my list has changed my life in some way, but this novel probably had the biggest impact. When I first read it, my life had followed a similar trajectory to the protagonist. I had become disillusioned with the meaning of life, quit my job, and left home to travel the world for a year or so. This book explores a lot of big themes in deceptively simple language. I re-read it any time I feel a bit lost in life. It always helps me to feel better, and see that things fit together, in just the right way.

By Erlend Loe, Tor Ketil Solberg (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Naïve. Super as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother's New York apartment.

In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door.

He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it.

Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant - superbly naive.


Book cover of Bartleby the Scrivener

R.H. Emmers Author Of Lynerkim's Dance and Other Stories

From my list on stories you should read (but probably haven’t).

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always been attracted to the overlooked, the obscure, the forbidden. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact I grew up in a time when it seemed natural to rebel against norms. Or maybe it’s that I inherited an oddball gene from some ancient ancestor. Anyway, it led me to interesting adventures—hanging out with a crew of gun runners in eastern Turkey—and interesting career choices—strike organizer, private detective, etc. It also shaped my reading and my writing. I read everything, but I’m particularly drawn to the quirkyGrendel, the fiction of Christine Rivera Garza for instance. And in my writing too: Lynerkim, the protagonist of my novella, is undoubtedly an odd duck.

R.H.'s book list on stories you should read (but probably haven’t)

R.H. Emmers Why did R.H. love this book?

Everybody knows Ahab, but do you know Bartleby? It’s a strange story about a strange man, which, of course, attracts me. Bartleby is a lawyer’s copyist who decides he doesn’t want to do this sort of writing anymore and meets every instruction with the words: I would prefer not to. You can read Bartleby as simply a humorous tale. Or you can read it as a story of the existential crisis most writers, myself included, face at one time or the other. Melville was feeling dissatisfied with his choice of a writing career—the critics were unfriendly—and, in my opinion, the title character reflects this. It’s also, in my view, an implicit critique of economic control in America—my SDS youth would approve! It’s not for nothing that the story’s final words are: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

By Herman Melville,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bartleby the Scrivener as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

At the period just preceding the advent of Bartleby, I had two persons as copyists in my employment, and a promising lad as an office-boy. First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut. These may seem names, the like of which are not usually found in the Directory. In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters.


Book cover of Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, Volume 1

Beth Hedva Author Of Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness: A Guide to Emotional Healing and Self-Renewal

From my list on betrayal.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a psychologist and university professor teaching internationally, I’ve had opportunities to listen to people’s stories globally, and impart wisdom gleaned from my own cross-cultural experiences. Invitations to share ranged from teaching others inner and spiritual healing methods to being Reader’s Digest’s “Online Ask an Expert about Infidelity”, to training local recovery workers during the two deadliest disasters of this century. Therefore, I cannot say I ‘chose’ to become an expert on betrayal. It chose me. From childhood on, betrayal gave me opportunities to personally experience and learn from interpersonal infidelities, health crises, social injustice, and mass trauma. The school of hard-knocks tests us first—then we get the teaching.

Beth's book list on betrayal

Beth Hedva Why did Beth love this book?

Among the proliferation of contemporary self-help books, Myths, Rites and Symbols elucidated what I consider to be a 'missing link’. As Eliade described ancient and indigenous initiatory rites of passage I discovered there are specific stages of transformative growth after the shock of betrayal. Initiation ceremonies often begin with isolation and separation—an existential crisis designed to train a novice (and the reader) to confront symbolic death and embrace the unpredictable vicissitudes of life’s ordeals as spiritual tests. The process awakens self-discovery and inner wisdom, which inspires a spiritual rebirth, renewed creativity, and a purpose-driven return to life.

Eliade planted a seed in my imagination: reframe separation as a ‘sacred separation’—and use the shock of betrayal (and its many ordeals) as part of a grand, personal ceremony of initiation.

By Mircea Eliade,

Why should I read it?

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


Alpha Max

By Mark A. Rayner,

Book cover of Alpha Max

Mark A. Rayner Author Of Alpha Max

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Human shaped Pirate hearted Storytelling addict Creatively inclined

Mark's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Maximilian Tundra is about to have an existential crisis of cosmic proportions.

When a physical duplicate of him appears in his living room, wearing a tight-fitting silver lamé unitard and speaking with an English accent, Max knows something bad is about to happen. Bad doesn’t cover it. Max discovers he’s the only human being who can prevent the end of the world, and not just on his planet! In the multiverse, infinite Earths will be destroyed.

Alpha Max

By Mark A. Rayner,

What is this book about?

★★★★★ "Funny, yet deep, this is definitely worth venturing into the multiverse for."

Amazing Stories says: "Snarky as Pratchet, insightful as Stephenson, as full of scathing social commentary as Swift or Voltaire, and weirdly reminiscent of LeGuin, Alpha Max is the only multiverse novel you need this month, or maybe ever."

Maximilian Tundra is about to have an existential crisis of cosmic proportions.

When a physical duplicate of him appears in his living room, wearing a tight-fitting silver lamé unitard and speaking with an English accent, Max knows something bad is about to happen. Bad doesn’t cover it. Max discovers…


Book cover of About Looking

Sallie Tisdale Author Of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

From my list on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?

Sallie's book list on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

Sallie Tisdale Why did Sallie love this book?

This is a book of essays about the act of looking, especially looking at photographs and paintings and animals and other people. Thus these are essays about history, memory, suffering, beauty, and the self. Berger had a generous spirit; he wrote often about the lives of peasants and spent the last forty years of his life in rural France. Berger gazed upon the world in all its forms with composure and curiosity. 

By John Berger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As a novelist, essayist, and cultural historian, John Berger is a writer of dazzling eloquence and arresting insight whose work amounts to a subtle, powerful critique of the canons of our civilization. In About Looking he explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. How do the animals we look at in zoos remind us of a relationship between man and beast all but lost in the twentieth century? What is it about looking at war photographs that doubles their already potent violence? How do the nudes of Rodin betray the threats to…


Book cover of Perfect Sound Whatever

Lucie Britsch Author Of Sad Janet

From my list on when having an existential crisis to feel better.

Why am I passionate about this?

Hi there, I’m Lucie and I’m a writer (allegedly) but before that I’m a human and I know how hard it is to be a human. It’s a constant battle with yourself, the people around you, the world, and it’s exhausting and sometimes it can be too much but we find ways to keep going and books help me do that (as well as crying, screaming, potatoes). I find life absurd most of the time so I have to laugh about it or I’d go insane. And I’m still alive, despite constantly being in a fight with my brain, so I think I’ve got this.

Lucie's book list on when having an existential crisis to feel better

Lucie Britsch Why did Lucie love this book?

A beautiful book by one of my favourite comics about one man’s mental breakdown and how music and the people who made it saved him from the worst year of his life. It’s funny and tender and all the music he references was made by people going through their own shit and about how they used their music to save themselves. It’s a book about how we fall apart and how we put ourselves back together and you don’t have to know about music to be moved by it.

By James Acaster,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

*The Sunday Times Bestseller*

The brand new memoir from James Acaster: cult comedian, bestselling author of Classic Scrapes, undercover cop, receiver of cabbages.

PERFECT SOUND WHATEVER is a love letter to the healing power of music, and how one man's obsessive quest saw him defeat the bullshit of one year with the beauty of another. Because that one man is James Acaster, it also includes tales of befouling himself in a Los Angeles steakhouse, stealing a cookie from Clint Eastwood, and giving drunk, unsolicited pep talks to urinating strangers.

January, 2017
James Acaster wakes up heartbroken and alone in New…


Book cover of The Suicide Shop

Lucie Britsch Author Of Sad Janet

From my list on when having an existential crisis to feel better.

Why am I passionate about this?

Hi there, I’m Lucie and I’m a writer (allegedly) but before that I’m a human and I know how hard it is to be a human. It’s a constant battle with yourself, the people around you, the world, and it’s exhausting and sometimes it can be too much but we find ways to keep going and books help me do that (as well as crying, screaming, potatoes). I find life absurd most of the time so I have to laugh about it or I’d go insane. And I’m still alive, despite constantly being in a fight with my brain, so I think I’ve got this.

Lucie's book list on when having an existential crisis to feel better

Lucie Britsch Why did Lucie love this book?

A funny book about suicide, what more do you want? If like me you’re prone to those dark thoughts, you really do have to laugh about it. This book is absurd yes but also has so much to say about human nature and spirit. It’s a cult classic that’s about life, not death, that will make you feel hopeful, the same way I hope my book does.

By Jean Teulé, Sue Dyson (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With the twenty-first century just a distant memory and the world in environmental chaos, many people have lost the will to live. And business is brisk at The Suicide Shop. Run by the Tuvache family for generations, the shop offers an amazing variety of ways to end it all, with something to fit every budget. The Tuvaches go mournfully about their business, taking pride in the morbid service they provide. Until the youngest member of the family threatens to destroy their contented misery by confronting them with something they've never encountered before: a love of life.


Book cover of Set My Heart to Five

Lucie Britsch Author Of Sad Janet

From my list on when having an existential crisis to feel better.

Why am I passionate about this?

Hi there, I’m Lucie and I’m a writer (allegedly) but before that I’m a human and I know how hard it is to be a human. It’s a constant battle with yourself, the people around you, the world, and it’s exhausting and sometimes it can be too much but we find ways to keep going and books help me do that (as well as crying, screaming, potatoes). I find life absurd most of the time so I have to laugh about it or I’d go insane. And I’m still alive, despite constantly being in a fight with my brain, so I think I’ve got this.

Lucie's book list on when having an existential crisis to feel better

Lucie Britsch Why did Lucie love this book?

This book got me out of a funk when I couldn’t feel like reading anything. It’s a book about a robot that wants to write a movie to save humanity after he becomes self-aware. It’s funny and sweet and will make you laugh and cry maybe not worry so much about the imminent robot uprising.

By Simon Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Set My Heart to Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Science fiction satire in the Vonnegut mold.”—Cory Doctorow

*SET TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE DIRECTED BY EDGAR WRIGHT (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD)*

‘A beautiful, funny, heartfelt analysis of what it means to be human.’—Simon Pegg

‘One of the most unique books ever crafted.’—Mike Chen, author of A Beginning at the End

Set in a 2054 where humans have locked themselves out of the internet and Elon Musk has incinerated the moon, Set My Heart to Five is the hilarious yet profoundly moving story of one android’s emotional awakening.

One day at a screening of a classic movie, Jared…


Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

Carol Fiore Author Of Flight through Fire

From my list on on loss that do more than make us cry.

Why am I passionate about this?

Loss, with its many contours, finds us all. For me, it came quite unexpectedly. During a long decade of profound grieving, I found inspiration in books. Through real characters and fictional ones, I learned and questioned and found strength. Adversity should evoke more than sadness. When we cheer for the characters on the page, we learn about ourselves. These are books that have helped me dig deeper into my own loss and to live fuller. I start with The Right Stuff because I know what it means to be married to a test pilot and to get the knock on the door. Loss does not have to be the end.

Carol's book list on on loss that do more than make us cry

Carol Fiore Why did Carol love this book?

Perhaps it takes a gifted poet to write about loneliness and pain in a way that is free of self-pity. Lucy Grealy is that poet, and this is the book I recommend in my grief self-help workbook (published in 2014).

Ms. Grealy, diagnosed with cancer at only 9, lost a third of her jaw and eventually underwent 30 torturous surgeries. She endured not only ridicule from classmates, but her own feelings of ugliness and rejection. This memoir is full of wit, insight, and beautifully crafted sentences that spare the reader from much of the frightening details. If ever there was a book that made you dig deeper for your own buried strength, this is it.

Lucy said before her death that she didn’t want to be anyone’s inspiration or role model; she wanted to be recognized as a serious writer. She did both.

I. Love. This. Book.

By Lucy Grealy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Autobiography of a Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book

"Grealy has turned her misfortune into a book that is engaging and engrossing, a story of grace as well as cruelty, and a demonstration of her own wit and style and class."—Washington Post Book World

“It is impossible to read Autobiography of a Face without having your consciousness raised forever.” – Mirabella

In this celebrated memoir and exploration of identity, cancer transforms the author’s face, childhood, and the rest of her life.

At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her…


Book cover of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Rajiv Sethi Author Of Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime, and the Pursuit of Justice

From my list on human interactions and the complexity of social life.

Why am I passionate about this?

Rajiv Sethi is an economist, currently a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His research deals with information and beliefs, with particular focus on how stereotypes condition interactions among strangers. 

Rajiv's book list on human interactions and the complexity of social life

Rajiv Sethi Why did Rajiv love this book?

This path-breaking book presents a view of human communication as theater, where speakers choose their words to create desired impressions, and listeners try to interpret speech while guarding against manipulation and deceit.

Strategic interaction and interpretation are central to the argument. In effect, Goffman is examining dynamic games with incomplete information, decades below the formal language for such analyses was developed. 

By Erving Goffman,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the defining works of twentieth-century sociology: a revelatory analysis of how we present ourselves to others

'The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing ... it is a dramatic effect'

How do we communicate who we are to other people? This landmark work by one of the twentieth century's most influential sociologists argues that our behaviour in social situations is defined by how we wish to be perceived - resulting in displays startlingly similar to those of actors in a theatrical performance. From the houses and clothes that we use as 'fixed props' to…


Book cover of Life of the Mind: One/Thinking, Two/Willing

Sallie Tisdale Author Of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

From my list on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?

Sallie's book list on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

Sallie Tisdale Why did Sallie love this book?

The relentless and erudite work of Arendt never ceases to challenge me. In the books included here—Thinking and Willing—she explores what it means that the self knows itself to be a self, and how that knowledge refracts and splits upon encountering others, and then changes when returning to solitude again. I read her knowing that she has not just considered but felt her ideas. “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display. . . .Up to a point we can choose how to appear to others.”

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The most intriguing…and thought-provoking book that Hannah Arendt wrote (The New York Times Book Review), The Life of the Mind is the final work by the political theorist, philosopher, and feminist thinker.This fascinating book investigates thought itself as it exists in contemplative life. In a shift from Arendt's previous writings, most of which focus on the world outside the mind, this is an exploration of the mind's activities she considered to be the most fundamental. The result is a rich, challenging analysis of human mental activity in terms of thinking, willing, and judging.