The best existential crisis books 📚

Browse the best books on existential crisis as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

Autobiography of a Face

By Lucy Grealy

Why this book?

Grealy lost her jaw to cancer when she was a young girl and endured many reconstructive surgeries. Her facial deformities and how people reacted to her appearance determined the course of her life and art. “I was my face, I was ugliness. . . .Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point.” Grealy was a hard person to befriend (I knew her briefly), and she died of an accidental overdose after many years of addiction to pain medication. The work she left behind is not easily forgotten.

From the list:

The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

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

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

By Hannah Arendt

Why 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.”

From the list:

The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

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Book cover of Females

Females

By Andrea Long Chu

Why this book?

A short, powerful investigation of how we construct and succumb to the lies of gender. Chu explores our fears of desire and how we allow politics to corrupt identity, believing gender to be so constructed that it can only be given and not created. Female is a quality we all carry, whatever label we use. Chu forces the reader to look in the mirror with a question instead of a statement, always uncertain about who that person really is. 

From the list:

The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

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Book cover of About Looking

About Looking

By John Berger

Why 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. 

From the list:

The best books on the existential crisis of looking in a mirror

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Book cover of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

By Erving Goffman

Why this book?

Erving Goffman’s work on impression management had a huge influence on me, beginning in my student days when I started to become fascinated by everyday interactions. The deliberate (and often convoluted) process of trying to control the impressions others form of us is integral to our modern-day understanding of brands and the social meanings they hold.
From the list:

The best books about why we buy – and what brands “mean”

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

Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, Volume 1

By Mircea Eliade

Why 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…

From the list:

The best books on betrayal

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