10 Essential Existential Reads


10. The Stranger - Albert Camus

"I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe" 

To be fair this should be number one, but it always is, so let's just get it out of the way. If anyone hasn't read Camus' tale of a man who didn't weep at his mother's funeral, consider yourselves tasked. Camus tells the deceptively simple story of a French Algerian man who "doesn't play the game."

Camus was fond of saying "fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth" and through The Stranger Camus makes his case for Absurdism.

Fun fact: Camus didn't consider The Stranger to be a work of existential fiction.

9. Nausea - Jean-Paul Sartre

“I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven's name, why is it so important to think the same things all together.”

The concept of angst is central to existentialism and Nausea makes you feel it. Like his peer, Sartre knew that it was better to show than tell, and Nausea does just that.

8. Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.”

Notes remains an existential classic and perfect use of the unreliable narrator so common to the genre. 

7. The Trial – Franz Kafka

“It would have been so pointless to kill himself that, even if he had wanted to, the pointlessness would have made him unable.”

Just who is on trial and who is the jury? You be the judge.

6. Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

"The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased." - Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Absolutely nothing happens in this frustrating tale of two men who are waiting for their friend to arrive. Waiting for Godot is a play by Samuel Beckett which depicts the meaninglessness of life.

5. Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

“If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?”

It took until number 5 to get to something more modern, but this book is so great. Called the The Catcher in the Rye for those in their late 20's.  Palahniuk's debut novel reintroduced this type of narrator to the first wave of teen millennials, and look what happened; we're all making artisanal soap.

4. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman - Laurence Sterne

"As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship"

TLOTSG is the actual original novel written from the point of view of a less than objective narrator. . It may also be the first appearance of the anti-hero. While it's arguably existential, we'll argue it because if you read it between 1759 and 1767 as it was being released, you certainly would have been experiencing a new take on existence.

3. The Myth of Sisyphus - Camus

“What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.”

I mean, this is the Absurdist you'll have to forgive the double Camus shout out. Arguing would be downright Sisyphean

2. Metamorphosis - Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.”

A man turns into an insect, an existential crisis ensues. 

1. No Exit - Sartre

"Hell is other people" 

This list is giving the top spot to No Exit. A hellish experience, three people share a room in the eternal punishment zone, and are surprised to discover a lack of fire and brimstone. Instead they sit in a circle, sharing their lives and revealing to us how they've constructed their sense of personal identity. But wait, there more. With the mastery of planning and character building we are shown how much we rely on others to validate our fragile constructions and what can happen when they can't, even if they desperately want to.

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