The best existential crisis books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about existential crisis and why they recommend each book.

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Set My Heart to Five

By Simon Stephenson,

Book cover of Set My Heart to Five

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Sad Janet

By Lucie Britsch,

Book cover of Sad Janet

What is my book about?

A black-hearted comedy for anyone who’s dreaded Christmas. Thirty-something misfit Janet works at a rundown dog shelter in the woods trying to block out how sad the world is. Everyone around her pretends to be happy (because they’re all on drugs) and they want her to be happy too, but she’s fine how she is. When a pharmaceutical company claims they’ve created a new pill to make Christmas tolerable, Janet, out of boredom mostly, decides to take the leap. Over the next few months, Janet takes part in a trial of this new drug with hilarious and profound consequences for everyone around her. A misanthropic tale goes awry in this depression comedy with a Fleabag-esque antihero at the centre.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

By Erving Goffman,

Book cover of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

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.

Who am I?

I’m passionate about the extraordinary world of the ordinary consumer. Organizations are much more likely to succeed when they are, too. I’m a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, U.S.A. I’m also a marketing consultant, an author (my Consumer Behavior textbook is the market leader globally), and a keynote speaker.  


I wrote...

The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization

By Michael R. Solomon,

Book cover of The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization

What is my book about?

Consumers are changing, but the marketing categories used to identify them have not. Engage with this new generation of consumers who increasingly take for granted that products and advertising will blend their multiple brand identities rather than market to them as a specific subculture.

Male or female, work or play, online or offline. These and other market categories are no longer relevant as modern consumers defy traditional boundaries and identify as members of multiple subcultures. The New Chameleons reveals how to engage with this new generation of consumers who change their social identities as often as chameleons change colors.

Life of the Mind

By Hannah Arendt,

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

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.”


Who am I?

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?


I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

Myths, Rites, Symbols

By Mircea Eliade,

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

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness: A Guide to Emotional Healing and Self-Renewal

By Beth Hedva,

Book cover of Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness: A Guide to Emotional Healing and Self-Renewal

What is my book about?

When your life has been shattered by betrayal it can evoke many reactions that damage trust and disrupt your life further: *Obsessing about the betrayal—seeking vindication, vengeance, or retribution. * Demonizing or dehumanizing your betrayer. *Generalizing negative traits to others—through stereotyping, cynicism, or bigotry. *Self-betrayal—no longer trusting yourself. *Suspicion—fear, control, or manipulation to protect against future betrayals

If you’ve suffered betrayal — infidelity, family issues, social injustice, or even physical ordeals and global disasters — you can get past the trauma and build a new life based on truth and Self-trust. Full of practical, step-by-step exercises woven together with ancient wisdom, myths and real people’s stories, this book’s inner healing techniques map out how to free yourself from pain and injury. 

The Suicide Shop

By Jean Teulé, Sue Dyson (translator),

Book cover of The Suicide Shop

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Sad Janet

By Lucie Britsch,

Book cover of Sad Janet

What is my book about?

A black-hearted comedy for anyone who’s dreaded Christmas. Thirty-something misfit Janet works at a rundown dog shelter in the woods trying to block out how sad the world is. Everyone around her pretends to be happy (because they’re all on drugs) and they want her to be happy too, but she’s fine how she is. When a pharmaceutical company claims they’ve created a new pill to make Christmas tolerable, Janet, out of boredom mostly, decides to take the leap. Over the next few months, Janet takes part in a trial of this new drug with hilarious and profound consequences for everyone around her. A misanthropic tale goes awry in this depression comedy with a Fleabag-esque antihero at the centre.

Autobiography of a Face

By Lucy Grealy,

Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Flight through Fire

By Carol Fiore,

Book cover of Flight through Fire

What is my book about?

On October 10, 2000, an experimental test aircraft crashed on takeoff, dragging a wing, before turning into a fireball. Barely alive and suffering horrific burns, test pilot Eric Fiore was the only survivor hauled from the wreckage. He has asked his wife to promise him something.

Based on actual events, Flight through Fire is an unforgettable love story centered on a deep devotion to aviation. Deftly interweaving the past and present, the author takes the reader on a wondrous adventure around the world with a complicated and passionate man who was born to be a pilot. Insightful, brutally honest, and unexpectedly humorous, this is the story of what it takes to be a test pilot, and what it costs to love one.

Naïve. Super

By Erlend Loe, Tor Ketil Solberg (translator),

Book cover of Naïve. Super

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Nobody Knows What They're Doing: The 10 Secrets All Artists Should Know

By Lee Crutchley,

Book cover of Nobody Knows What They're Doing: The 10 Secrets All Artists Should Know

What is my book about?

In a world desperate for a glimpse of authenticity, Nobody Knows What They’re Doing is a breath of fresh air that reveals the truths hiding between the lines of Instagram-friendly aphorisms and behind the words of the most inspirational TED talks. An honest look at the reality of creativity and the joy and difficulty of crafting good (and bad) art, this book belongs in the hands of every exhausted creative, every starry-eyed dreamer, and every person who is trying to make their way in the world—and keep a roof over their head while they do it.

Perfect Sound Whatever

By James Acaster,

Book cover of Perfect Sound Whatever

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Sad Janet

By Lucie Britsch,

Book cover of Sad Janet

What is my book about?

A black-hearted comedy for anyone who’s dreaded Christmas. Thirty-something misfit Janet works at a rundown dog shelter in the woods trying to block out how sad the world is. Everyone around her pretends to be happy (because they’re all on drugs) and they want her to be happy too, but she’s fine how she is. When a pharmaceutical company claims they’ve created a new pill to make Christmas tolerable, Janet, out of boredom mostly, decides to take the leap. Over the next few months, Janet takes part in a trial of this new drug with hilarious and profound consequences for everyone around her. A misanthropic tale goes awry in this depression comedy with a Fleabag-esque antihero at the centre.

About Looking

By John Berger,

Book cover of About Looking

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. 


Who am I?

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?


I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

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