I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite books that have made me think deeper about the meaning of life. I have a pretty intense fascination with existentialism so these types of books are right up my alley (and I’m always looking for more so feel free to drop me a line with recommendations!). These are great books to take along on your next adventure. You can also check out my favorite travel books on my Travel Resources page. Happy reading!
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke is a well-known poet from the early 20th century whose work is sometimes referred to as “mystical” aka you might have heard him quoted in a self-help book somewhere. Letters is a collection of correspondence from 1902-1908 between Rilke and a 19-year-old man seeking his advice on becoming a poet. The letters not only shed light on Rilke’s other works, but also on his inspiration and deeper thinking on love and pursuing purpose in one’s lifetime. Although the story is from another century, the lessons to be learnt are indeed timeless.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust concentration camp survivor who wrote this book upon his liberation. He applies his experiences in the camp to the development of an existentialist behavioral therapy (called logotherapy) based on the notion that man’s purpose is to strive for meaning (as opposed to striving for pleasure or happiness, etc.). Among many things, he says there is no one single meaning for man, but each individual creates his or her own meaning. I don’t know about you, but if there’s anyone I’d trust with the meaning of life, it would be a concentration camp survivor.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The Stranger by Albert Camus and The Trial by Franz Kafka
Who doesn’t love a good absurdist existential novella? Both authors similarly address the question, “Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives?” with the answer that life has no meaning, anything can happen for no reason at all, and the world is unfair and doesn’t make any sense. Sit on that for a second and see how it makes you feel!
” ‘You have misunderstood me. You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. You won’t be hampered in carrying on in the ordinary course of your life.’
‘Then, being arrested isn’t so very bad,’ said K., going up to the Inspector.
‘I never suggested that it was,’ said the Inspector.
‘But in that case it would seem there was no particular necessity to tell me about it,’ said K., moving still closer.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial
Into the Wild and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a college grad who burns all of his money and abandons his family and possessions in favor of a life of solitude living off the land. He travels the States for two years before making his final journey into the wilderness of Alaska, where he ends up living in an old school bus. Into Thin Air is the tragic yet true story of the failed 1996 Everest expedition that claimed 8 climbers’ lives in one 24-hour period. I’ve read it twice now, each time binge-reading because I couldn’t get enough of the devastating, hypoxia-riddled tale of surviving (and not surviving) the most uninhabitable place on Earth.
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn
If you read no other book ever in your whole life, just read Ishmael. It’s a Socratic dialogue between a gorilla and a man on how to save the world. The premise of the argument is that the Agricultural Revolution in the Neolithic Period of human evolution triggered the downfall of man and the planet. There is hope yet to save civilization and Ishmael the gorilla will tell you how. READ THIS BOOK.
“They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they’re leaving their children to cope with.” – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Ah, this wouldn’t be a list of books that make you think about the meaning of life without a dystopic novel would it? I re-read this book every now and then because it’s such a fascinating, imaginative and utterly terrifying version of what society could be someday – I just have to remind myself how lucky we are to not live in the brave new world! Brave New World takes place in London in 2540 in a society in which people are harvested instead of born; work and live according to a caste system; and take a drug called soma to feel good all the time. But our hero, Bernard Marx, senses that there must be more to life.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides is the story of the suicides of five beautiful sisters living in suburban America over the course of a year. The story is told from the perspective of the neighborhood boys, who watch the girls obsessively and try to understand the source of their sadness.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Lightness is a loosely arranged novel based on the lives of various characters in Prague in the 1960’s and 70’s. The story features love, infidelity, and strong philosophical undertones related to the meaning of existence and of course the ‘lightness of being’.
“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.” – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
What books have you read that have inspired you to think about life in a deeper way? (I’m especially looking for book recommendations that feature female authors because I seem to be missing that for some reason!)
This post contains affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commission if you decide to purchase anything through the link. These books are awesome and you’ll love them, plus I could use some change to add to my travel piggybank so it’s definitely a win-win for all involved parties.
Unbearable Lightness of Being was a great movie.
Loved both Krakauer books.
I need to search your room for Ishmael and read it.
Ishmael should be on my bookshelf! Courtesy of Jena 😉
One of the best books about existing in the world today and what it means
Oh wow that looks super interesting! Thanks for sharing, Nitin! I’ll have to add it to my next Amazon order