The best existentialism books 📚

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

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Book cover of Imperial Bedrooms

Imperial Bedrooms

By Bret Easton Ellis

Why this book?

With Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis channels many of his career-long obsessions into a nihilistic work of Hollywood noir, written in a minimalist prose style that evokes both Raymond Chandler’s staccato brutalism and Joan Didion’s haunting lyricism. Imperial Bedrooms takes a razor to Hollywood’s beautiful surfaces while drawing the reader deeper and deeper into protagonist Clay’s misanthropic paranoia. The writing is masterful, existential horror frozen into sentences so spare and focused they often resemble haiku. It features what might be my favorite closing line in fiction: “The fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes, all the things you wipe away—I…

From the list:

The best books about descents into existential darkness

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Book cover of The Demon

The Demon

By Hubert Selby Jr.

Why this book?

To varying degrees, all of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novels depict descents into existential darkness. The Demon might be the one I like best, for the clarity of its allegorical power and for its intimate alignment between the development of narrative and protagonist psychology. Specifically, the novel is locked into the perspective of corporate employee Harry White, who submits to an unlocatable destructive drive that grows larger in his mind as he advances in his career. As Harry accrues more wealth and stability, his inner drive (or demon) compels him to infidelity, petty crime, and ultimately acts of extreme violence. The…

From the list:

The best books about descents into existential darkness

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Book cover of What Is Existentialism? Vol. I: History & Principles

What Is Existentialism? Vol. I: History & Principles

By Frank Scalambrino

Why this book?

After extensive research, this is the only book in existence that answers the question: What is existentialism? Existentialism may be understood as the correct point of departure for addressing the philosophy of being as it relates to the individual. In other words, existentialism provides the philosophical framework with which to answer the question: What does it mean to be?

Existentialism is the culmination of the philosophical tradition moving from Kant through the German Romantics to Heidegger and Sartre, among the other existentialists. In regard to Kant’s division, it differs from Deleuze’s choice to articulate transcendental philosophy with cosmology as the…

From the list:

The best philosophical metaphysics books: What is be-ing? & What does it mean to be?

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Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Existentialism Is a Humanism

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Carol Macomber

Why this book?

This short talk has become one of the defining texts of existentialism. We have no essence, no purpose, no reason to be, and this both frees us and dooms us: we are doomed to be free. The heavy responsibility for creating meaning is placed firmly on our shoulders. Most people find the burden too heavy to bear and seek relief through what Sartre calls “bad faith,” which he spends much time detailing. You will recognize yourself somewhere in there. Sartre tells us there’s nothing we can do about this, but we can do nothing—we can embrace this nothingness and…

From the list:

The best books that will tell you everything you wanted to know about existentialism but were afraid to ask

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Book cover of Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Why this book?

Sartre was not a good philosopher in the classical sense. He wasn’t great at constructing arguments. But what he was unquestionably great at was intuitions. He had them, and they were usually spot on, and as a result he was right about most things. In this large book, we find a sustained development of a single brilliant, intuition: anything you are aware of is not you. You are the awareness rather than anything you are aware of. You are nothingness. One implication of this helped me get through the second half of my first marathon. Experiential unpleasantness is a…

From the list:

The best books on humans and other animals

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Book cover of Asylum Piece

Asylum Piece

By Anna Kavan

Why this book?

Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece presents exciting stylistic possibilities for the world of “personal fiction.” The book defies easy genre categorization, but one might describe it as an experimental, thematically connected collection of autofiction. Drawing on her own experiences in a Swiss sanitarium (from which she was dispatched in 1938), Kavan excavates her psychological traumas and filters them through sequences of vignettes and short stories, conveying states of extreme emotional distress through a restrained, intensely lucid form. An unblinking study of alienation, mental disarray, and feelings of helplessness under bureaucratic control, Asylum Piece takes up a lot of space in my…

From the list:

The best books about descents into existential darkness

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