If you ask my first-ever boyfriend why we broke up at his junior prom, I am pretty sure he would not say it was because of high school philosophy class. He would probably say something about the new guy in town, and the way he removed his motorbike helmet and ran one hand through his hair every morning upon arriving at school. Sure, Motorbike Man may have had a little influence, but at the end of the day it really was all because of philosophy class.
I was an English Lit and current events type of gal. I liked to lose myself in beautiful, fictional worlds, and then later learn about practical ways I could try to better the problems of the real one I actually lived in. Introduction to Philosophy could take a hike. So when my then-boyfriend scurried to my locker one afternoon, blah-de-blah-ing about whether or not a chair really exists just because his conscious mind conceives of it, and if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound — thinking he had literally discerned the key of the entire universe — I kinda knew it was over. At the time I wasn’t a regular F-word user, but if I had been there would have commenced some profuse mentioning that I didn’t at all give one. And here’s what: I still don’t give one.
I like my philosophy with a side of practicality. If my mind is going to be blown, I want to know it’s going to be put back together even stronger. Waxing poetic about chairs and trees isn’t going to do it for me. So here are nine philosophical books that will blow your mind, while also offering totally digestible life lessons that you'll be able to, you know, actually use.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
In this philosophical memoir, author Robert M. Pirsig describes the cross-country motorcycle journey taken by himself and his son Chris, during which Chris learns about what Pirsig terms "the metaphysics of quality" or the value of what one experiences in the immediate, present moment. Pirsig also tries to reconcile his past self with his present one, as a learning point for his son, referring to the character of his past self as Phaedrus — a nod to Plato. Boiled down: father and son go on road trip, learn about themselves and the universe, return home having a stronger relationship with themselves and each other.
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
When Viktor Frankl was an inmate at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, he decided that the way he and his fellow prisoners imagined their futures beyond the camps would influence their ability to survive. Frankl believed a man needed to focus on finding his ultimate purpose in life, and use that purpose to generate positive hope for the future, no matter how brutal his present experience might be. Despite Frankl's own experiences in Auschwitz, and the experiences he witnessed of others, he ultimately determined that life always has meaning, and credits this realization, in part, with his survival.
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
As a diehard Doors fan, I'll admit I read this one only because Jim Morrison loved it. With a little psychedelic assistance (the entire book is basically a meditation on one long mescaline trip) Aldous Huxley explores the limits of his mind — or effectively widens his "doors of perception." While we all can't run around taking mescaline all day, Huxley's intensified experience of being in the present moment, and the newfound beauty he discovers in all things, are definitely worth consideration.
The Theater and Its Double by Antonin Artaud
While this book was originally written as a criticism of the rules of actual stage performance, what Antonin Artaud actually ended up writing is a philosophical tome on how humans communicate. The Theater and Its Double explores language, nonverbal communication, and the contrast between the urgency of how a person attempts to express themselves versus those who are attempting (but according to Artaud, unable) to understand that urgency. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what he's doing... you'll have to read this one for yourself and get back to me.
Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus
This children's story for adults is maybe one of my most beloved books of all time. It features two caterpillars named Yellow and Stripe, who attempt to climb to the top of the caterpillar ladder (a metaphor for life aspirations) only to realize that being at "the top" isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The Invention of Peace by Michael Howard
In The Invention of Peace, military historian Michael Howard explores the interconnectedness of war and peace, and asks some intense questions about whether or not one can exist without the other. Beginning with the Enlightenment, when war first began to be understood as an abhorrent social ill, rather than necessary to keeping general order, Howard explores the role war has played in the history of humanity, wonders why humans continue to wage war after "the invention of peace," and discusses what nuclear weapons mean for the future of the planet.
Flatland by A Square aka Edwin A. Abbott
Flatland takes place in a two-dimensional world, inhabited by line segments (women) and geometric shapes (men). The main character, A Square, visits both one-dimensional worlds and three-dimensional worlds in his attempts to convince other figures that both he and his two-dimensional world exist. When he is visited by A Sphere — a three-dimensional character from a place called Spaceland, he learns that the leaders of his native Flatland have been hiding the existence of other dimensions from their own world for years. (Jeepers that's a geometric whirlwind.) A Square is determined to do something about it.
Illusions by Richard Bach
If you've ever thought: "Am I having an existential crisis?" Illusions might be the book for you. Richard Bach argues that what you're experiencing as reality is really just largely an illusion formulated in your mind, and can therefore be understood more effectively. When the narrator, a biplane pilot, finds his plane landing alongside that of another pilot in a field in Indiana, the two take on a student/teacher relationship. The narrator is taught to perform miracles: walking on water, swimming on land, etc. On the whole this book discusses how our individual perceptions determine our relationship with the world, and explores the impermanence of all things.
Gift of the Red Bird by Paula D'Arcy
After Paula D'Arcy was 27, her husband and baby daughter were killed in a horrifying car crash, leaving D'Arcy and her living daughter adrift in a sea of grief and confusion. Then D'Arcy takes a journey alone into the wilderness without food, spending three days meditating on impermanence, fear, grief, and lost faith. She discovers how to be present, let go of fear, and trust in the ultimate goodness of the universe. This one will leave you feeling philosophical and inspired.