The best books about the human condition

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the human condition and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

By Susanne K. Langer,

Why this book?

Susanne K. Langer was a philosopher of aesthetics, and a specialist in the nature of symbolism and language. This classic book, dedicated to Alfred North Whitehead, contains her now somewhat famous distinction between “presentational forms” and “discursive forms,” which refers, roughly to symbolism such as sculpture and architecture which present much-at-once, and symbolism such as music and language which disclose their meaning linearly over time. She also brilliantly lays out her views on “Language,” where in a chapter by that name, she critiques instinct theories, challenges naïve views, and speculates on how human beings are evolutionary descendants of singing, dancing,…

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The best books for grasping how language and symbols relate to the human condition

Book cover of Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko (translator)

Why this book?

Can a society as mired in misery and oppression as ours be helped by a few well-intentioned “progressors” from another world? You land in secret, wielding godlike powers (remember Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and possessing a perfect understanding of sociology and historical dynamics, only to find how hard it is to be a god. What would you do?
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The best books that explore the human condition

Book cover of Always Coming Home

Always Coming Home

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why this book?

This book, by one of the greatest American authors of all time, is an “archaeology of the future”: a record of the daily life, the customs, the beliefs, the poetry and stories, and the spirit of a people who live in a far-future California that is at the same time deeply connected to the past of its original inhabitants. Of all the utopias that are on offer in world literature, this is the one that makes the most sense to the social scientist in me, and also the one that I would like the most to wake up in someday.…
From the list:

The best books that explore the human condition

Book cover of Report to Greco

Report to Greco

By Nikos Kazantzakis,

Why this book?

This Cretan writer, who is most often identified as a Greek, asks us to probe our deepest identity, to be honest with ourselves. I think that that should be the first premise of an honest writer…an honest person. When you are born you are told early what to believe. Why you should believe. Who you and what you should believe or not believe in. At some point in your own life, you must resolve what you yourself accept for your own belief system. You should determine what is or is not important to you. Only then can you live YOUR…
From the list:

The best books to read for a clearer understanding of many facets of the human condition

Book cover of The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line

By Joseph Conrad,

Why this book?

Ships and boats are good settings for conflict; physical, sociological, and psychological.

No wind to drive the ship, a sick crew, and a mentally unstable first mate beleaguered by the ghost of the previous captain are trials the young captain must deal with. As in all of Conrad's fiction, there is plenty of insight into the human condition revealed through the characters and felt in the subtext. I classify it as a coming-of-age at sea story, drawn from Conrad's own experiences. "Coming-of-age" does not mean "young adult" in my life dictionary. It may continue well beyond the teen years.

From the list:

The best books on sea voyages gone badly

Book cover of Death with Interruptions

Death with Interruptions

By José Saramago,

Why this book?

I’ve saved my “riskiest” pick for last—you might not like this one, or at least you might be wondering for two-thirds of the book what the heck is going on, other than that you are reading about a country in which no one dies. The book starts by earnestly (and sometimes humorously) asking and answering questions: what do you do with so many living people? What do you do with people who are say, gravely wounded in an accident but can’t die and also can’t recover? What are not just the logistical but emotional challenges of no one departing? Would…

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The best otherworldly novels that will both haunt you and get you to really, really think

Book cover of Hustle

Hustle

By Tom Pitts,

Why this book?

The brilliance of Hustle is the way it juxtaposes the everyday addict's life. Sure, there's the big crime and action, bad guys, car chases. Again, that part fiction. But Hustle lives and breathes in between. In the minutia. Of the doldrums of, as Lou Reed once so eloquently sang, waiting for the man. It's the quiet moments and small conversations between Big Rich and Donny, where we see their humanity. As warped and twisted as the world may be around them, they never lose that appeal: being victims of the human condition. And like I said, living this life with…
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The best books for what addiction is really like (no punches pulled ed)

Book cover of Joseph and His Brothers

Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann,

Why this book?

Thomas Mann, “puts clothing on the myth” of the biblical story of Joseph in this deeply profound and moving novel that reveals aspects of the human condition: love, greed, ruthlessness, forgiveness, jealousy, and ambition. Joseph and His Brothers remains relevant to the 21st-century reader. If I had to choose one novel to take with me to read on an isolated island, this would be the one I chose.

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The best books about why immigrants leave their country of origin and the riches they bring to their new country

Book cover of Modernity and the Holocaust

Modernity and the Holocaust

By Zygmunt Bauman,

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”.

From the list:

The best books on understanding the human condition

Book cover of Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

By Erving Goffman,

Why this book?

Erving Goffman was a Canadian sociologist and the founder of the “dramaturgical” tradition within sociology, where metaphors of the stage and theatre are brought to the analysis of everyday life. This particular book is a collection of his early essays concerning “encounters,” or what happens when people, wittingly or unwittingly, come face-to-face and share information, handle interpersonal incidents, and manage identities. With surgeon-like precision, Goffman engages in “micro-sociology” analyses, nuanced descriptions of the ritual expression games in which interactants engage when they come into each other’s presence. The book is a delight to read partly due to Goffman’s uncanny ability…

From the list:

The best books for grasping how language and symbols relate to the human condition

Or, view all 20 books about the human condition

New book lists related to the human condition

All book lists related to the human condition

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