“You want weapons? Go to a library. Books are the best weapons in the world.” –Doctor Who
Books have a way of capturing us that movies and documentaries simply cannot compare to. The worst thing you can do is limit yourself to reading only a few books. The best thing you can do is find out what you’re interested in and get out there and read up on the subject. You’ll find that your interests will grow along with your knowledge, to the point that you’ll discover the deliciously heavy weight of knowing that you know nothing. If you’re looking for books that will challenge you mind body and soul, and cause you to see the world in new ways, look no further than the following seven books (just kidding, look further).
1.) Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
“With this book I have given mankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far. This book, with a voice bridging centuries, is not only the highest book there is, the book that is truly characterized by the air of the heights—the whole fact of man lies beneath it at a tremendous distance—it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth, an inexhaustible well to which no pail descends without coming up again filled with gold and goodness.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra has something terribly well-crafted about it, and indeed – sit venia verbo – it is Nietzsche’s magnum opus. The books single task and raison d’etre consists in turning the human soul inside out. And it succeeds, but only if the reader is open enough to receive it. It has everything from the death of God to the overcoming of man through the prophecy of the Übermensch to the “eternal recurrence of the same.” It possesses a unique experimental style, sang in “dithyrambs” narrated by Zarathustra. It is neither prose nor poetry but it is both somehow, breaking all literary rules but coming out smelling like a rose someone laid on God’s own grave. Nietzsche’s elegant and far-reaching conclusion is that while autonomy and self-overcoming are not easily attained, their absence proves catastrophic to both the individual and culture, as the embittered conformists seek new victims on whom to psychologically pillage with their ideals and avenge their psychic wounds born out of the fear of being an insecure being in an unforgiving universe.
2.) The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
“Danger: real probability of the awakening of terror and dread, from which there will be no turning back.” –Ernest Becker
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1974, The Denial of Death builds on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and Otto Rank. Throughout the book Becker’s voice is a chokehold of higher reason. He grabs us by the throat and brings us back down to earth, where he reveals how we are nothing more than insecure, fallible creatures “who need continued affirmation of our powers.” But it is through this continued affirmation where we discover our “symbolic self,” which we use to transcend the limits of our insignificance. This leads to our embarking on an “immortality project,” in which we become part of something we feel will last forever, beyond death. It is at this point that we transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism. Becker speaks like his own tongue was a hero of a thousand faces itself, lashing like existential whips at the heart of the human condition. He forces our head over the edge of the abyss, challenging us to be heroically creative and responsible with bringing meaning, purpose, and significance to the grand scheme of our lives.
3.) Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin
“Remember that self-doubt is as self-centered as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you’re able.” –Bill Plotkin
In this book Bill Plotkin introduces The Eight Soul-centric/Eco-centric Stages of Human Development. He takes us on an epic journey of healthy human development, beginning with The Innocent in the Nest, The Explorer in the Garden, and The Thespian at the Oasis. These three stages round out the lower ego-centered stages of human development. The majority of people in Western societies never get beyond this stage, and so true adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement, and genuine elder-hood nearly nonexistent. Arguably the most critical stage is the fourth: The Wanderer in the Cocoon, where we learn how to stretch comfort zones, break mental paradigms, and pass through existential thresholds. Our ego is fully formed, and we become a creature that has the capacity for “soul initiation.” The stages continue with The Soul Apprentice at the Wellspring, The Artisan in the Wild Orchard, The Master in the Grove of Elders, and end with The Sage in the Mountain Cave.
4.) Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
“What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.” –James P. Carse
This book is a pithy yet gripping exploration of the human condition through the concept of game theory. Carse introduces two contrasting game players: the Finite Player and the Infinite Player. He explains how “a boundary is a phenomenon of opposition (finite). A horizon is a phenomenon of vision (infinite).” The Finite Player plays within boundaries, while the Infinite Player plays with boundaries. The Finite Player plays in all seriousness, while the Infinite Player plays in jest. The Finite Player plays for power, while the Infinite Player plays with power. The Finite Player consumes time, while the Infinite Player generates time. The Finite Player aims for eternal life, while the Infinite Player aims for eternal birth. For the Finite Player the rules of the game always stay the same, while for the Infinite Player the rules of the game always change. For the Finite Player the game inevitably ends, while for the Infinite Player the game phenomenally continues. The only infinite game is the game of life.
5.) The Rebel by Albert Camus
“I rebel; therefore we exist.” –Albert Camus
This 1951 book-length essay by Albert Camus is a tour de force on rebellion and revolution in societies. It is an existential portrait of man in revolt. Riding on a steady stream of transcendental moral values, Camus integrates such writers as Marquis de Sade, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He weaves between the concept of the “absurd” and the concept of “lucidity” while explaining how rebellion stems from our being disenchanted with outdated and parochial applications of justice, and a seeming contradiction between the human mind’s unceasing quest for meaning and clarification and the apparently meaningless unclear nature of the world. He also discusses the rebel’s dilemma of seeking to fight injustice without losing transcendental values, and how some rebels can get carried away, losing touch with the original basis of their rebellion. Deeply entertaining and subtly satirical, this book should be the cornerstone of any revolutionary’s education.
6.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” –Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael
Awarded the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, Ishmael is a novel using a type of Socratic dialectic to deconstruct the notion that human beings are the pinnacle of creation on earth. Ishmael is a Gorilla who can communicate telepathically. He takes on a nameless human student and proceeds to teach him his philosophy using the Socratic method of dialogue. He teaches his student about “Taker” societies and “Leaver” societies, and how Takers are always breaking the immutable laws of nature. Ishmael explains, “The premise of the Takers’ story is ‘The world belongs to man.’ …The premise of the Leavers’ story is ‘Man belongs to the world.’” Ishmael argues that civilized societies (takers) are failing the world, and that human supremacy is nothing more than a cultural myth, asserting that Takers are enacting that myth with dangerous consequences, such as endangered or extinct species, global warming, and modern mental health illnesses. This novel is truly an adventure of the mind and spirit.
7.) The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsche
“The whole scientific process resembles biological evolution. A problem is like an ecological niche, and a theory is like a gene or a species which is being tested for viability in that niche.” –David Deutsch
This book encompasses everything from how evolution affects the universe as a whole to time travel to the very nature of a “theory,” and how quantum computing could affect our future. The multiverse hypothesis, according to Deutsch, turns out to be the key to achieving a new worldview, one which synthesizes the theories of evolution, computation, and knowledge with quantum physics. He uses a four-strand Theory of Everything (TOE) to explain emergent phenomenon. The four strands are Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Karl Popper’s epistemology, Alan Turing’s theory of computation, and Richard Dawkins’s refinement of Darwinian evolutionary theory. He writes about universal Turing machines, replicators, memes, free will, the Grand Father Paradox, and time travel machines, weaving it all together with a Popperian problem-solving epistemology. A delicious read for the scientifically minded who are looking to shatter their mental paradigms and think outside of the box of mere simplistic reductive reasoning.