Ten Books to Combat an Existential Crisis

Does existence terrify you? Does life seems dark and horrifying? Have you lost your faith in people?

Are you looking for a glimmer of hope to grasp onto?

Maybe you just want a few incredible and life affirming books to read. That’s cool too.

I hope that this list will aid with any and all of these states. I present to you my list of books for your mental bomb shelter. These are the books that you crack open during times of upheaval. They are funny, sad, confronting, and most importantly, hopeful. They are a valuable resource in this day and age, worth their weight in gold.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657The story of Scout, Jem and Atticus is timeless. Harper Lee wrote this book with enormous empathy. The book deals with tumultuous issues such as gender, race, justice, and rape. The book is eternally relevant, and the moral heroism of Atticus Finch, and the innocent optimism of Scout, is still positive and vital.

This is a book filled with hope, compassion and courage. Read this book to remind yourself that there are, and have always been, good people who will do the right thing, the good thing, in the face of ignorance and hate.

  1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

28921Stevens is a butler. The book is a meditation on his life and choices. It deals with shifting relationships, decisions made, and the loss of opportunities. The novel weaves through Stevens’ life, through past and present. I was hugely sympathetic to this story when I read it. Stevens is such a lonely character. But he is also a man of conviction, pride and professionalism.

The novel considers things like love, duty and loyalty, in addition to the influence of time on perspective and thought. It is about a man taking stock of his life, and considering what could have been but also what is. It is sad, but it is also hopeful and genuine.

  1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

17910048The Goblin Emperor is almost entirely unique in the fantasy genre. The book defines itself by its warmth. The book addresses social issues such as class and race but does so through the unique lens of Maia, the main character.

Maia is a son of the Emperor of the Elflands, but he happens to be of mixed Elven and Goblin heritage. This renders Maia immediately as an outsider in the court, but the true difference between Maia and the denizens there is without a doubt his warmth, sympathy and empathy. Maia is simply and genuinely good.

Maia lives in isolation until the sudden death of his father the Emperor, and his elder siblings, leaves him at the head of the line of succession to the throne. The book follows Maia’s descent into the dark waters of political intrigue with all of the callously ambitious aristocracy one might expect in such a court. Maia, though, is immovable in his goodness, and he attempts to govern as such. This is a book of hope. It is emotive and positive and a breath of fresh kind-hearted air.

  1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764Like the Goblin Emperor, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a unique and hopeful addition to the fantasy genre. The book begins in a small village with the main character Agnieszka being unexpectedly plucked from her home, and it slowly expands until the fate of the kingdom is at stake.

Agnieszka and the enigmatic wizard ‘Dragon’ are the central players of the book. Agnieszka is a hugely admirable, entertaining and grounded protagonist. She is clever, independent, brave, adventurous and empathetic. There is an effortlessly organic quality to her that can only be due to Naomi Novik’s talent as an author.

They face significant threats, conflict, and danger, however Uprooted distinguishes itself by not having a central antagonist. There is evil, and there are evil characters, but the book is more about motivations and consequences instead of forces in direct opposition. It’s a great story, full of growth and potential.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

19063The Book Thief is set in Germany during the rise of fascism and the supremacy of Nazism, and it is utterly heartbreaking. It is horrifying, sad and filled with loss, but also with kindness and hope; the characters inspire it, and the people provide it. This terrible backdrop only accentuates how precious an act of kindness can be.

The book is narrated by Death, who observes the best and the worst of human potential during this time, all the while following the life of Liesel, our little book thief, with a fascination that appears to be unusual.

The characters are what makes this book what it is. They are flawed, frustrating, and stubborn. They are also curious, kind, and ultimately good. The German perspective is unique and powerful. It’s all too common to explore WWII narratives through the lens of the Allies, remotely, but it’s incredibly confronting to sink into a society that felt the horror of Nazism first, and the keenest.

The people in these pages are memorable and it celebrates the good in us. It is the sort of book that will touch even the most cynical heart, and it will restore a measure of faith in humanity, if that is waning. This book explores the good in people that persists even in the crucible of horror and misery that was Nazi Germany. Harrowing, tragic and disturbing, The Book Thief shows what can be achieved by small and simple good deeds, and the hope that can spring from it.

  1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2552On the Road, to me (and many others) is about the search for meaning in life. It is the search for a purpose. It is a bouncing, breathless, and untethered exploration of the ‘beat’ subculture that is both fictional and semi-biographical. It is packed with references and allusions to people in Kerouac’s circles, and it is what I instantly think of whenever someone mentions him.

For me, it’s Kerouac’s defining work. It’s sometimes lonely and isolated, sometimes crowded and feverish. It is a book of people seeking a place to belong in a world that is shifting and changing. It is reckless, fun, and energetic. It is also oddly sad.

The excitement in Kerouac’s search throughout the novel for meaning is a vital experience. It’s a book that captures a certain desperation to step outside of social norms and embrace something new, a desire to forge a new path.

  1. Catch 22 by Joeseph Hellar

168668My overwhelming theme so far has been that of hope and this book, especially toward the end, can be bereft of it. I think that the overall treatment of war here is relevant, as is the relentlessly cold nature of bureaucracy. These things (among many others) make this an important book.

Another reason why I’m adding it here, though, is the utter irrationality and irreverence. This book is as hilarious as it is tragic, but I honestly think that despite the horror, the loss, and the devastation therein, this book is a positive one. Against all odds, against a war machine that appears intent on grinding every last character down to nothing, hope shines through the cracks in the dark.

Yossarian is a hilarious and tragic figure. He is defiant, rebellious and understandably critical of the war and their place in it. He also continues to do his duty despite the dehumanising calculation of their missions, and the likelihood that he and his brothers in arms will die. There is a certainty of death that clashes with the humour, and this contrast sharpens both aspects. The book has a broad cast of characters and they are all doing what they can to cope in the red haze of war and the very real evidence of their fragile mortality.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

18038911Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers living today. Anything he writes is something that I strongly suggest you read, but in the theme of this list, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best fit.

This book is sweet, nostalgic, and scary, and captures so well the magic of childhood. This is a book about the innocence of youth and the loss that occurs during the transition to adolescence and adulthood. It carefully reinforces the idea that we will always be who we were when we were small no matter how old we get. A little bit of the magic will always be there glimmering inside.

The book flows with the vivid imagination of Neil Gaiman, capturing the wonder of a child that just so happens to find himself in the centre of an effort that will save the world from an unforseen and unanticipated danger.

You could describe this as a fantasy, and it certainly deals with themes common to the fantasy genre, but that feels insufficient to contain it. It is steeped in the recollections of childhood. There is a quality to it that is similar to a lucid daydream. The book is sufficiently rooted in reality to be genuine, but gilded around the edges with the magic found in folk and fairy-tales.

The book is spooky, sad, and unsettling. It is also hopeful, warm, courageous and good. It’s the sort of book that will transport you back to your childhood, when the world seemed so much more magical, grand, and full of unbelievable potential. Where you might walk into the woods one day and simply stroll into another world.

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

818108Norwegian Wood is the first of two Murakami books on this list because I am unable to pick one, and all of his books are perfect for a list like this. It really could have been ten Murakami novels on here and I’d have been satisfied. Murakami taps into something with his writing. It is something elemental that resonates with me, consistently, on a level that very few other writers have.

The story of Norwegian Wood follows the recollection of Toru Watanabe, who at the start of the book is a middle-aged man. After he hears Norwegian Wood by the Beatles play, his memories transport him back into the turbulence of his days as a student in the 1960s.

We observe his listlessness, his boredom, his loves and his losses. There is an aching nostalgia to the story that will be familiar to anybody who has left friendships and relationships behind, to anybody that has lost someone that they love.

Tender, tragic, and isolated, this book simmers with the emotion of a young man who is adrift and experiencing the uniquely keen emotion of a young adult. It is heartfelt, emotional, tempestuous, and incredibly relatable. If you’re going through a dark period, if you feel lost or rudderless, if you’ve had your heart broken, read this book.

We are creatures of memory, and this book will help in embracing that. For all the pain that memories and reflection can elicit, there is a pervading sweetness and nostalgia to it all. It makes us what we are. Murakami champions the value of memory. He suggests that a life lived is the summation of memories and experiences that range from the tragically sad, to the deliriously happy.

70933The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues Murakami’s pervading theme of men missing Women. Toru Okada, the protagonist, who is presently unemployed, is looking for his missing cat, and what follows is a surreal descent into a strange and inexplicable labyrinthine underworld of missing people, missing cats, eccentrics, clairvoyants, sex, murderers, and wells, where the lines of reality begin to blur.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to me, is a recovery book. It’s the sort of book you pull out and re-read as a coping mechanism. A good friend of mine refers to it as a ‘break-up’ book. And it really is. If you need an anchor, if you need something stable to grasp upon when you are uncertain or feeling lost, Murakami is a lighthouse that allows you to navigate the rocky shores. Toru Okada’s descent into this strange story, and his search for what he has lost, is isolated, compellingly strange, and sincerely affecting. 

There is slow, deliberate and meticulous quality to Murakami’s writing. His books are tethered in reality, but he opens the door to the strange and the surreal. This is especially so in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In Murakami’s stories he shows us that everyday, little by little, our experiences shape and form us into a new version of ourselves, each slightly different to the last. Murakami takes reality, the chemistry of common life, and he infuses it with mystery and magic. I can think of no other writer who so instils such a profound sense of growth, hope and recovery.

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