15 Books to Better Understand Yourself and Others

Good books offer important insights about the meaning of life, love and liberty. They convey knowledge rather than news or information. Knowledge that was gathered through the life experience of the author, his people and his culture.

I have collected a number of, mostly, epic poems and tales that are worth reading to better understand the soul of mankind, and yourself in the process. In random order:

The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The song of Hiawatha (Wikipedia)

A poem that submerges you in the lost civilization of the native indians of America. The New York Times harshly wrote of this poem,

(…) embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race. As a poem, it deserves no place.

But let yourself be the judge and learn of an extinct world that is hardly mentioned in comparison to the fate of African-Americans.


Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

by David Henry Thoreau

Walden pond (Wikipedia)

Was Thoreau a coward or a hero for abanding society and deciding to live in the woods, all by himself? Thoreau finds strength in solitude:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.


The Secret History of the Mongol Empire (~1230)

Bataille entre mongols et chinois (Wikipedia)

This book was written by an unknown author shortly after the death of Genghis Khan, the greatest conquerer of all. It takes you back into time of a lost warrior culture and its people. The book was rediscovered in the 19th century and then translated into English for the first time.


Fragments (~500 BC)

by Heraclitus

Johannes Moreelse’s Heraclitus (Wikipedia)

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. His philosophy contains elements of what we now call Eastern and Western philosophy. Legend has it that philosopher Heraclitus wrote a book and left it at the famous temple of Delphi where, among others, Plato read it. Hercalitus’ work did not survive, but has been cited by many who read his original book. They found it obscure, because Heraclitus made an effort not to be understood.

You cannot step into the same stream twice.

The river always changes, but so do you — you are also never the same.


Bashō: The Complete Haiku (1644–1694)

by Matsuo Bashō

Statue of Basho in Ogaki (Wikipedia)

Bashō, a pseudonym meaning banana tree, was a Japanese poet who essentially invented the haiku poem or popularized his style of it. For a long period of time Bashō retreated from life, walking thousands of miles in solitude. At some point he gained a following of students. Later in life he would adopt the Buddhist attitude of greeting the mundane world rather than separating himself from it.

the rough sea / stretching out towards Sado / the Milky Way” (1689)


The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979)

by Alice Miller

Alice Miller (Wikipedia)

Miller was a Polish-Swiss psychoanalyst who rejected the theories of Sigmund Freud. Her revolutionary insight that children are not born bad has since shocked the psychoanalytical world.

Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parents needs.

This book is intended for those brave souls who dare explore their childhood past! Be careful what you find, you may not like it.


Meditations (161–180 AD)

by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (Wikipedia)

Marcus Aurelius was the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. He wrote the Meditations as his personal diary which was never intended for publication. It provides insight into the directing mind of a man of power.

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.


The Illiadand The Odyssey (~800–700 BC)

by Homer

The Illiad and its sequal The Odyssey tell of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon of Troy and the warrior demi-god Achilles. We’ve all heard about these stories, but who has really read them? The language is down to earth and full of creative insults. Heraclitus would say of Homer, “he is an idiot who deserves to be beaten”. You can be the judge.


The Prose Edda (1220)

by Snorri Sturluson

The Poetic Edda (1200–1300)

(also known as Codex Regius)

The wolves pursuing Sol and Mani (Wikipedia)

These independently written books represent the earliest writings of norse mythology, telling of the pre-Christian deities of Nothern Europe. The norse cosmology is unique: it is the only one where the earth and its people are the outcome of and act of agressive destruction rather than divine creation, namely the slaughter of the giant Ymir by the gods Odin (Wotan) and his brothers Vili and Vé.

Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself die; I know one thing which never dies: the judgment of a dead mans life.

___

One Thousand and One Nights

(around 1300)

Sheherazade and the sultan (Wikipedia)

The Arabian Nights / Sheherazade is a collection of stories compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. However, many stories’ origins predate islam and are of West and South Asian origin. There are numerous different publications that go by the same name, each adding or dropping stories. Notable stories know to most Westerners are Aladdin’s Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor.


Kalevala (1835)

by Elias Lönnrot

Scene from the Kalevala (Wikipedia)

This is the story of the Finnish creation myth. The author Elias Lönnrot asked himself if he could source enough material from Finnish oral folklore to write an epic tale of the stature of an Illiad or Edda. He succeeded and the result played an important role in the development of a Finnish national identity.


The Epic of Gilgamesh (2100–1800 BC)

by various authors

This is one of the oldest written epics available to man and considered the world’s first great work of literature. A central theme of the book is the struggle of man and woman and the quest for eternal life,

Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.


Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

by Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl (Wikipedia)

The author Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust-survivor of Bergen-Belsen. As a pychiatrist he made use of his condition and analyzed the souls of men in concentration camps. His experience would become the foundation of logotherapy, which focuses on the will to meaning (Der Wille zum Sinn) rather than the Nietzschean will to power (Der Wille zur Macht).

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.


The Song of the Nibelungs

(around 1200) by unknown author

Sigurd and Brunhild (Wikipedia)

This is the famous Middle German mythological story of Siegfried and Brunhilde. This book was a source for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and arguably provided the mythological landscape for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Either way, they all involve a magical ring, or rings, dragons and swordplay.

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