Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Antidote to The Alchemist: 22 Books That ACTUALLY Encourage the Examined Life

Paulo Coelho’s atrocious mess of a pseudo-novel is making the rounds and wrongheadedly mislabeled as a “deep examination of the self” yet again. Just hearing this assertion makes me bristle. His poor substitute for a self-examination is not only trite; I would go so far as to consider Coelho’s book misleading and somewhat dangerous, since its materialistic ending could lead one to entirely the wrong conclusion about the point he was supposedly trying to make in the first place. But I don’t expect much more from a writer who can’t write a realistic dialogue, let alone characters, to save his life.

In short, it’s candy for people who come to the book looking for a hearty meal. It may be fun (for...someone, I suppose?), but it’s not going to give you any sustenance (and may give you diabetes).


Wait, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. Substance.

Save yourself some time and a dented wall. Because, trust me, if you have any self-awareness at all, the end of this book will make you throw it across the room (if you make it that far). If you want to read his book to become more self-aware (and more universally aware, for that matter), you might consider giving some other books a try.

Which books? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ve assembled a “scratch the surface” sort of list to get you started. There are benchmark books, such as Plato’s Republic and other religious and philosophical source material that are also valuable, but I’ve left those more hefty books off the list in favor of books that might serve as a launching point in more accessible language and with an approach that could hopefully be an easier way to start. Once you get compelled by one or two of these, continue digging! Suspect anyone who claims to have all the answers, but keep searching anyway. The scenery on the journey is totally worth it.

1. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
This text that essentially launched entire theoretical analyses in literature is a little dated, but I still find the core idea fascinating—that we, as a human culture, carry within us some sort of proclivity toward a heroic narrative that’s roughly common across cultures offers possibilities for consideration of the psyche that binds us as a species. Straightforward where authors like Coelho tend to be vague, I appreciate Campbell’s direct approach to the idea that while culture is unique, those things that drive us emerge from much further within.

I’m currently reading The Inner Reaches of Outer Space by Campbell, and it focuses more on the spiritual aspects of self-examination so far, especially as humanity relates to the cosmos at large. At this point, I’d recommend this book, too.

2. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
A prose story about the life of a prince (wait, was he a prince…or just rich? Ah well…he’s entitled, let’s just put it that way) who meets the Buddha and his journey to enlightenment. I really appreciate that this story points out the fact that mastery isn’t a destination where you end, but something that needs to be returned to rather than simply “achieved.” Short, quick read, in easy-to-digest language.

3. Transformations by Anne Sexton
Taken from the rich history of Western mythology and fairy tales, Sexton weaves a series of poems that are personal, penetrating and, at times, darkly humorous. If you want to read a very personal twist on mythological analysis, this is definitely for you.

4. Blindness by José Saramago
I will warn you now: this book will suck your life away. You’ll open it and start reading, thinking that you’ll knock out a few pages before bed…and then find yourself jittering like a crack addict at 2 a.m. because you need to get through ONE MORE PAGE to figure out how some part of the plot resolves. And don’t expect to sleep easily even after you finish. This book sticks with you. It’s a breakneck journey through chaos which also happens to be a deep examination of what it means to be human, how we see ourselves and the world, and how we identify the self with our senses. I don’t say this about many books, but this one could very well change your life and the way you see the world, and it manages to do so without being even the least bit didactic, which is some sort of magic.

As I understand it, Saramago’s The Cave would also qualify for this list, as it’s an adaptation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (which, if you don’t know it, is also a must-read. I believe it’s a part of his Symposium). The Cave is on my “to-read” list, but I haven’t made it that far quite yet, so I can’t speak to it explicitly.

5. The Jedi in the Lotus by Stephen J. Rosen
In this book, the author discusses the Hindu themes in the Star Wars series and explains many aspects of Hindu philosophy based upon the themes and images in the movie. Lucas was a big fan of Joseph Campbell when he wrote Star Wars, so the influence of ancient religion and philosophy in the series is no surprise at all, but this examination goes into great detail about the ways that the religion and the movie speak to one another.

There are a number of great books out there that discuss philosophy and its relationship to pop culture. If you like this and want to start looking more closely at the way that pop culture converses with philosophy, I’d encourage you to hunt some down. Look for books with good bibliographies and references to established philosophers…anything without a bibliography is probably candy.

I don’t usually have much respect for Llewellyn as a publisher, because they have a propensity to promote the same type of sourceless candy that Coelho pushes, but I really enjoyed this book, if only for the fact that it encourages an awareness and appreciation of a place where people tend to feel spiritually isolated….the city.  It got a little goofy for me at times, but I appreciate the opportunity to think about how to connect to nature in a place that’s so antiseptic.

Hildegard of Bingen was a mystic nun (eventually saint) was known for her visions and the philosophies that resulted from her religious experiences. Her life is fascinating. Her visions are intriguing. Her philosophy is thought-provoking. Definitely a worthy read. And maybe a re-read.

8. Not Quite Nirvana by Rachel Neumann
I love this book because Neumann has managed to create an entertaining memoir that also doubles as a quasi-treatise on mindfulness that even the most ardent atheist can appreciate. As Plato said, “The un-examined life is not worth living,” and Neumann takes this to heart by pointing out how anyone’s life can benefit from the practice of mindfulness and meditation, and then offers her own experience as evidence. She also offers practical practices in the back of the book Did I mention that she’s an editor for Thich Nhat Hanh’s (a significant Buddhist priest) publisher? She gets insight from all sorts of great sources (she also grew up in a commune, so she has THAT experience as well) and makes a really easy-to-follow guide for those of us who don’t get to sequester ourselves in a monastery on a regular basis.

9. Trilogy by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
A bit dense to unpack (but what good poetry isn’t?), but Trilogy is a synesthesia of philosophical and mythological perspectives. Written while she was in Europe during World War 2, the trilogy of long poems weaves together the cultures and religions of a variety of modern and ancient Western cultures and performs its own splendid alchemy in creating an incredibly moving piece of unified poetry that discusses the sublimity that transcends religion and conflict. I can’t begin to describe how much I love H.D. as a poet, and this is the height of her talent as a weaver of words that was truly transformative for me in my first read.

I’m on my second round through this book, and it’s pretty fantastic. Red Hawk’s ideas are straightforward and extremely powerful if put to use, though the practice he proposes can be deceptively simple. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting this man in person and discussing his ideas face-to-face, and he is obviously someone who practices what he preaches. Practical and direct, I really feel that Red Hawk encompasses a philosophy in these pages that should be taken very seriously. The idea of stillness and self-examination as the core to balance exists, to some degree, in numerous religions, but I love how he manages to break through pretension and present it in a dense, but short, text.

This is the most accessible way to approach the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the seminal religious texts of Hinduism, that I’ve ever read. Greene does a splendid job of encapsulating the ideas of the work in a practically verse-by-verse analysis. I would also strongly suggest the Bhagavad-Gita itself, particularly the translation by Prabhupada. I’m currently going ten rounds with his translation of Śrī Īśopaniṣad (I find I don’t entirely agree with his perspectives), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not thought out and something I’d consider worth reading.

12. The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
Chances are, if you’ve heard the term “Waste Land” referenced in popular culture and art, the speaker was referencing this poem (whether they were aware of it or not). I can’t promise that this one’s terribly positive overall (okay, so it’s downright depressing), but the piece is so overwhelming and moving that I couldn’t keep it out of the list. He addresses the issue of the loss of self that is so common starting especially in the modern era. He offers no answers, but instead points a microscope at the inner process and asks all the right questions. I’d also strongly suggest reading “The Hollow Men,” which was initially supposed to exist as a part of this original text. And everything else he wrote. Seriously. He’s amazing.

13. The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock
I felt this book was a more personal recounting by Murdock rather than the generalist analysis that some think it is supposed to be. I thought it was a fascinating look into the quest to find the self inside the parameters set out in a society in which you may not necessarily be the “target audience.” It also discusses the ways that “the hero’s journey” may not apply across the board when the goals of the text isn’t centered toward the same core goal. Leans sometimes toward the “self-help” drivel that I find annoying, but overall I think the ideas presented are very useful.

14. The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
This one’s a little didactic, but I can’t get over the minimalistic beauty of her style. I also appreciate the fact that Le Guin suggests the dangers of something that is all too common in modern society—extremism. She illustrates two extremist societies in the piece, and both are equally fascist, even if the core motivators behind each society are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum (religion and Capitalism). While the culture of The Telling itself is fascinating, I was more drawn to the story for the fact that it illustrates so beautifully how the Tyranny of the Majority can destroy the beauty within the “dissident” elements of society. Variety is what gives beauty depth, not uniformity.

15. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
This is another novel of Le Guin’s that pursues some rather deep socioeconomic issues and asks some significant philosophical questions about the nature of all people (can’t say just humanity, considering the story!) and the motives of individuals and society and what we do with the power to rule. I greatly appreciate the fact that the negative aspects of both societies are unabashedly presented by the author. Definitely a book that inspires reflection on perception of what is “right.” Also, read The Lathe of Heaven. Oh, fuck it. Just make it a policy to read everything the woman writes. 

16. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Read this with the lights on. Like Blindness, this will get under your skin and have you climbing the walls (or measuring them). This disjointed, glorious mess of a book will have you taping yardsticks to your ceilings and reaching to the end of your closets, not to mention asking where the line lies between truth and madness. But it also illustrates so splendidly the nature of the self and examines the root of all fear. Probably the best and most frightening book I’ve ever read. I adore the fact that he not only challenges the reader’s perception of reality, but also of the entire format of the traditional book as well.

17. Equus by Peter Shaffer
This is a masterpiece of postmodernist questioning, a terrifying examination of the basic human psychological need for the catharsis of worship, and the damage that can be done when that need is juxtaposed against a resistance to that instinctual impulse.

18. India Authentic: Volumes 1 and 2 by Saurav Mohapatra
Retelling of Hindu myths in illustrated beauty and accessible prose, with each chapter (initially each issue release) focusing on one god or goddess. These stories make them real in a way that I’d never experienced before, and expose the beauty and tragedy of the rich stories that make up the pantheon of Hindu divinity (and, since these gods and goddesses speak to very real aspects of the self—they are all a part of Vishnu, after all—each is revealing in its own way). It’s so sad that Virgin comics went under. They were creating really amazing works of reflection and great stories that managed to do a fantastic job of exploring the self in a genre that’s still often trying to grasp at its potential.

19. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis (Author), Christos H. Papadimitriou (Author), Alecos Papadatos (Illustrator), Annie Di Donna (Illustrator)
 Part graphic novel, part philosophical text, Logicomix is an examination of logic and life through the lens of a surprising medium. This comic examines the structure of logic, mathematics and philosophy in a really down-to-earth manner. Sometimes I felt that they were actually a little more confined by the medium than I’d like, but that might be by virtue of the fact that I was already familiar with some of the basic concepts they were expressing. It’s a really great way to launch dialogue about the ideas brought up in the book, and hopefully to encourage the reader to pursue more.

I received this book as a Christmas gift and was entirely glued to it for a couple of days until I’d made it through the story. An exquisite retelling of the Cupid and Psyche story from a unique point of view, Lewis does a splendid job of illustrating the inner conflict that comes when we run up against the boundary between the sublime and the mundane.

21. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
This is easily one of the best graphic novels I’ve read—an examination of the meaning of, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything.” I find the main character a bit angsty, but I think that overall his ennui is understandable. This graphic novel manages to do everything that Coelho attempts to do on a regular basis in his work and falls flat on his face attempting to accomplish. The concepts illuminated here aren’t new, but the presentation and the plot completely blew me away. Read. Now. Then think about it for a week, a month, a year. Then reread it. Fantastic. I’d give it six stars if I could.

22. Watchmen by Alex Ross

I can’t talk about philosophical graphic novels without talking about Watchmen. This one is going to probably leave you just as cheerful as Asterios Polyp, and perhaps less so, actually, because it speaks of similar themes on a wider scale…the consequences of an increasingly hopeless society on the eve of Apocalypse. Alex Ross was reading a lot of T.S. Eliot when he wrote this one.

So, what's the verdict, folks? What books made YOU think or left you shaken and transformed? COMMENT about them! Because my "to read" list is never too long.


  1. Great list! Thanks. There are a lot of books here I’ve never read, and some new authors too. I'll devour almost anything with a spiritual/religious/metaphysical context. I'm happy to see you included C.S. Lewis. My personal favorite of his is "The Screwtape Letters." What's missing? Castanada. I don't condone the use of drugs as an easy path to heaven, but the idea of traveling between parallel worlds through a dream is excitingly plausible.

    1. There's a LOT missing, simply because there's quite a bit I haven't read yet. I only added books I could endorse after reading them. And I know I left some off that I really should have included. I also neglected to mention Rumi (who I wanted to add and forgot), Gurdjeff (because I haven't read him), and Ghibran (again, forgot). I might have to edit to add Rumi. That's a huge oversight.

  2. Crud, and I also forgot "The Way of the Shaman." That's a BIG biggie. I'll revise soon.