Just Think

New Year’s Reading List: Books to Transform Your Sad Life

It’s a new year, and once again Americans will stuff their heads with mindless optimism and pathological hope. Try reading these books instead to find real wisdom about life.

Alexandre Normand/Getty,Andrej Godjevac

As the New Year dawns, let’s admit that the American psyche is a dilapidated maze of funhouse mirrors that leads nowhere. It should not shock even the most credulous patriot that many people who spend their internal lives within this maze of narcissism and dysfunction have major problems. One in five Americans suffers from some kind of mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The New York Times recently reported that suicide rates are rising so rapidly and steadily that more Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents. In a turn that vindicates Aldous Huxley, one in ten Americans ingests their daily Soma supplement in the form of antidepressants.

Many Americans are like Soren Kierkegaard’s allegorical corpse who did not realize he was alive until the morning he woke up dead—aimlessly wandering around in a drug addled haze, indulging smart phone addiction, disconnected from reality and community, while wondering why they feel unhappy and unfulfilled.

To worsen their condition of alienation and dejection, many Americans, in an attempt to feel better, read books that manipulatively sell mindless optimism and pathological hope. The cult of positive thinking turns out one hit after another, both secular—The Secret—and Christian—Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. The delusion that changing a life is as simple as believing it will change, and the poison that pretends God wants people who pray early and often to win the lottery, only raise expectations to unrealistic heights, and set desperate people up for a crushing fall with a crash landing.

Since Americans seem to love making New Years resolutions, now might be a sensible time for many to resolve to gain maturity and perspective in 2014. Such a process of self-education can and should begin with the close reading of books containing wisdom that will alleviate their anxiety, provide edifying purpose, and begin to transform their minds from circuses to cathedrals.

Here are ten books that belong on any syllabus of self-transformation.

The Myth of Sisyphusby Albert Camus

It all begins and ends with Camus. He had the intelligence, but more importantly, the courage to acknowledge the fundamental condition of life—absurdity. Life, along with the planet that we inhabit, is absurd, and any search for objective meaning is destined to end in disappointment or delusion. Camus did not cower from the depressing implications of his insight. He claimed that because of life’s absurdity, the most important question of philosophy—really the only question—is suicide. Why continue to live in a tragic world where bad intentions produce catastrophe, good intentions create disaster, and the only certainty is death?

Camus answers that the absurdity of our tragic nature is actually benevolent. It gives man the opportunity to live in a “constant state of revolt” against absurdity. Revolt leads to satisfaction and fulfillment, and that is precisely why Sisyphus—the Greek figure sentenced by the gods to spend his life rolling a rock up a hill every single day—is “happy.” His mind is set on accomplishing a task, and that task gives him a sense of purpose and a source of meaning. The meaning and purpose are subjective, but as long as he is committed to pushing the stone on his shoulder, he is fighting, he is working, and he is striving. He is happy.

Letters From a StoicBy Seneca

While Paul of Tarsus was laying the foundation for Christianity, writing about hell, the evils of homosexuality, and the crime of women speaking in church, Seneca—the Roman stoic who would serve as advisor to Caligula—was busy attempting to formulate a rational philosophy and ethical practice for absorbing life’s blows to the body, and negotiating the world’s assault on a reasonable mind. He elevated the self-governed dignity and integrity of the individual by emphasizing the principle that a person is only “offended” if he allows it. Steely stoicism seems particularly important in an America where people constantly claim offense, mount their sensitivity like a prestigious trophy, and support the media creation of an outrage industry. Seneca encouraged followers to possess the strength of immunity to setback, but never withheld his human touch. He writes beautifully about the power of friendship, and vehemently condemns slavery. Loss and defeat are ineradicable and unavoidable parts of life. Seneca, thousands of years after his death, still bequeaths to readers one of the best methods of accepting suffering, and adapting to it with grace, resilience, and pride.

My Struggle: Book OneBy Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first book in Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s brilliant six-volume memoir is an assiduously detailed and deep meditation on death; provoked specifically by the death of the author’s father. Knausgaard manages to lend a hypnotic poetry to a form of language he calls the “banality of the everyday”, and in doing so he dramatizes the universal struggle for the feeling of meaning and a sense of understanding. Americans are terrified of death, and often demonstrate an immature refusal to accept it. The popularity of anti-aging techniques and surgeries, the worship of youth, and the hysterical political resistance to the proposal that doctors have honest conversations with near terminal patients about their prospects, demonstrate the truth in Cornel West’s criticism of America as a “death denying culture.” As much as the reality of death frightens, it can also liberate. It puts the fragility and insignificance of a single life in perspective, and thereby gives the individual the power to live aggressively in the pursuit of one’s own passion. It also protects the individual against egotism and delusions of grandeur.

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Knausgaard puts it beautifully and arrestingly—“For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives, but in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.”

Death In the AfternoonBy Ernest Hemingway

The great American author’s journalistic examination of bullfighting takes on grand proportions when one realizes that its power is metaphoric. Every human being is in the ring staring down the bull, trying to evade, conquer, and kill. The book is essential reading, moreover, because Hemingway uses it to give readers the most direct insight into his existential ethic. It is a smart, reliable, and instructive alternative to the blend of Puritanism and consequentialism that seems to pass for philosophical reasoning in much of American culture: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationshipsby Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

If there is one aspect of human life and interaction that requires Americans to develop some maturity, it is sex. Caught between competing strains of Puritanism (the religious right and the feminist left), and constantly feigning shock in response to the boring vulgarity and contrived sexuality of predictable pop culture, Americans have the mind of a bipolar adolescent when it comes to sex. Sexual scandals are still the most damaging to the career of a politician, but addiction to internet pornography, divorce rates, and infidelity are all on the rise. Ryan and Jeta explore anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, and anatomy to present a persuasive case for a loosening of sexual mores. Monogamy is an unnatural human construct, and while it does have benefits, it also creates unrealistic expectations for singles, couples, and families. The results are often pain, confusion, and misery. Jetha and Ryan, with boldness, humor, and high style, offer a better, wiser, and healthier alternative.

The Art of Lovingby Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was a German who immigrated to the United States, and became a psychoanalyst and social philosopher. He also wrote one of the most important books on love in the history of the printed word. Fromm challenges the superficial and transactional approach to love that is prevalent in America, and visible in romance novels, romantic comedies, and the obscene, bulbously materialistic wedding industry. “Love is an art”, Fromm writes, and “if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering.” It is tough, and like any discipline, it demands practice, commitment, and abandonment of a results-obsessed, utilitarian measurement of success.

A Renegade History of the United StatesBy Thaddeus Russell

One of the common threads that runs through all of the books already appearing on the New Year’s Resolution list is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom from dogma, sexual liberation, and the freedom of creatively pursuing maximum life. Thaddeus Russell, an insightful journalist and independent, unpredictable historian, tells the previously untold history of the United States that places freedom at the center, and honors the unsung champions of freedom—prostitutes, drunks, flamboyantly gay ministers, disco musicians, and an assortment of other “immoral” rogues that make up a gallery of glory. Reading Russell’s history of America should inspire Americans to oppose the new asceticism taking hold of educated, liberal America in the form of smoking bans, trans fat bans, low blood alcohol limits, political correctness and calorie counting. More importantly, it should motivate Americans to ridicule and reject the bores, prohibitionists, and schoolhouse masters who advocate such a grim lifestyle program. Rebellion, breaking the rules, and having fun, for proud Americans, is a patriotic duty.

How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s ManifestoBy Tom Hodgkinson

America is a work-obsessed culture. Every year, Americans neglect to take advantage of 500 million vacation days, and often when they do vacation, they are connected and communicating with the office through phone and email. Tom Hodgkinson—a daring and witty British writer—offers reprieve and release from the stress, anxiety, and pressure that comes with such a narrow vision for a short life. In his “loafer’s manifesto”, he convincingly extols the virtues of a full life—one that demands leisure, fun, and simply taking the time to do nothing.

The AnalectsBy Confucius

Confucius, the ancient Chinese teacher, philosopher, and political theorist, was a collectivist, and China’s collectivism is one example among many of the deadly and destructive errors of rejecting individualism. He was also, however, a rational man who did his best to develop a coherent system of ethics based on reason, goodness, and mutual human interest. Americans have enough of a healthy individualist strain to dismiss the most dogmatically collectivist components of Confucianism, but they would benefit from reading the wisdom of a man who prized the cultivation of knowledge above all other pursuits. There is a loud and colorful streak of anti-intellectualism and nationalism in American culture, and both poison the thinking of many of its inhabitants. The Analects shows the absurdity of both mental disorders. It also offers a fine guide for moral living, as Confucius was the first to express the golden rule: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

CreationBy Gore Vidal

The only novel on the New Year’s Resolution list doubles as a crash course in comparative philosophy and religion, which was Gore Vidal’s intention. Vidal was one of America’s sharpest, toughest, and most talented intellectuals. Creation, one of his finest novels, proves it. He realized that if one man lived long enough, and traveled to the right places in the fifth century BC, he could have met Confucius, Buddha, Master Li, Pericles, Sophocles, and Socrates. His protagonist becomes that man. Packed into a compelling and addictive narrative of war and adventure, the study of ancient philosophy Vidal compiles will give Americans a more holistic understanding of the world and its history of ideas, and put them on a path outside of the narrow prison of the ego.

Spinning Straw Into GoldBy Morris Berman

Morris Berman is a starry eyed realist whose message is not for the faint of heart or hardhearted. He is an important and wise historian whose trilogy of books on the decline of America (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed) takes the unpopular, but serious and persuasive view that the American economy and empire are in freefall, with no hope for recovery. One of America’s most indictable crimes, according to Berman, is the cultivation of a “culture of hustling.” Hustling—the surrender of everything to market forces—is an energizing, and often, enriching enterprise, but it is ultimately empty, depressing, and destructive. In Berman’s new book—Spinning Straw Into Gold—he examines his own life, and ruminates on what finally provided his life with meaning, purpose, and peace, after leaving behind the tedium of pursuits (a bad marriage, the hustle for tenure) he now calls “unnecessary,” “wasteful”, and “stupid.” It is the most contemporary of all the New Year’s resolution books, and therefore for many Americans, likely the most relatable.

It would be wrong to call Spinning Straw Into Gold “self-help”, except only to say that it reinvents the self-help genre. It liberates it from the hollow clichés and boring platitudes of the Joel Osteen or Rhonda Byrne bestseller, and returns it to the enlivening, enlightening, and enchanting world of philosophy.