“Casual” yet weighty philosophy to read before bed?
April 18, 2018 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy reading philosophy after a “tall glass of water” or two, but more in the vein of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” than Kant or Hegel.

I’ve never been hugely into philosophy but as I get older I’ve noticed my reading tastes change from fiction to nonfiction (mostly history) to nonfiction (philosophy). I’m not super interested in the history of philosophy (yet) though I imagine after awhile I’ll probably want to dig back into Ancient Greece. For now, I’m more interested in (as above the fold) Sartre, maybe Nietszche? Maybe Camus? Maybe eventually Kierkegaard? Anyone in the vein, books you’ve found relative readable that were a distinctly challenging yet pleasurable experience. I realize there is pleasure to some of the more esoteric reads as well but I’m not ready for that yet.

I’ve also read some contemporary books that were not strictly philosophy but at least close: Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and some Barbara Ehrenreich books that challenged me to think of life soberly and differently than usual.

What other books might you recommend to someone like me? As context, I avoided “heavy” topics for a long time while searching for an antidepressant/therapy regimen that would help me... I’m now at a point where I’m relatively stable but still grappling with larger issues of life, love, the body, the soul, death, etc. in a somewhat melancholy way and interested in exploring them through texts. Books that are narrow or wide in focus are fine.

And yes, “tall glass of water” means what you probably would guess it does.
posted by stoneandstar to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Well, The Stranger and The Plague are novels; rather than philosophical treatises, so they read pretty easily.

The Socratic dialogues are mostly pretty short, and are fairly lively. If Socrates complements somebody (“Tell me, best of men...”), or if they end their sentence with “Socrates.” (“It certainly seems that way, Socrates.”) then somebody is about to get pwned.

I also like the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is pretty short and kinda surprising to be in the Bible.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:43 AM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is very readable while offering a rich lode to mine, and you can put it down anytime. I would also recommend the stories of Chuang Tzu, for the same reasons.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:49 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Jan Zwicky's uniquely formatted Wisdom & Metaphor. It is composed of opposing pages where one side is some snippet of philosophy, logic, etc, and the other her comments. Zwicky is a gifted poet and the material is esoteric but not dry; definitely rewarding in short bursts.
posted by Lorin at 11:01 AM on April 18, 2018

Should add, novels with a strong philosophical bent welcome, as long as they’re not just fetishizations of philosophy.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:07 AM on April 18, 2018

Yes Nietzsche. Maybe Beyond Good and Evil or Zarathustra.
Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Judith Butler, Gender trouble
Susan Buck-Morss - the Arcades Project (about walter benjamin who you could read also)
Also you might really enjoy Volatile Bodies by Elizabeth Grosz, which takes on the mind/body problem with analyses of western philosophy -- (it's feminist philosophy on its own, not a boring overview)
posted by flourpot at 11:08 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm reading Happy by Darren Brown right now and think you might enjoy it. It's mostly about Stoic philosophy but I also enjoyed his teardown of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. And he quotes Barbara Ehrenreich fairly extensively.
posted by hazyjane at 11:09 AM on April 18, 2018

Marcus Aurelius
Roland Barthes- “A Lover’s Discourse” and “Mythologies”
Borges’s poems and short stories scratch this itch for me, as do W G Sebald’s novels.
Maggie Nelson- “The Argonauts”
“Undoing Gender” is an easier path to get into Butler with than “Gender Trouble” imho
posted by mymbleth at 11:16 AM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

For a sort of mix of a Review of the Existentialists combined with a History of the Existentialists in an engaging but still heady writing style, I highly recommend At the Existentialist Café. A great way to dip your toe into Kierkegaard, Hegel Heidegger, Husserl, Sarte, De Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and all the connections between them. Bonus for being written by a woman which we need more of in philosophy.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:34 AM on April 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

You might find Doris Lessing's post- Four Gated City works engaging, I would say starting with A Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and you might also like some of the philosophical novels she drew epigraphs from for the Children of Violence series, such as Musil's The Man Without Qualities and David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus.

AO Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being is beautifully written, erudite to an extreme, and ultimately quite worthwhile despite its difficulty; I'm still in the process of marveling at its relevance to contemporary Cosmology, particularly how well the Principle of Plentitude accounts for and explains the motivation behind Inflation and the theory of Multiverses.

If you can stand Theology, you might like Buber's I and Thou or Tillich's Biblical Religion and the Search For Ultimate Reality.
posted by jamjam at 11:45 AM on April 18, 2018

Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego goes into phenomenology in an accessible and non-dire way. When I was on a steady diet of existentialism it was absolutely refreshing.
posted by mrcrow at 11:51 AM on April 18, 2018

(comes in, ready to recommend Pop Culture and Philosophy, feels very unsmart, exits room immediately)
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 11:57 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lots of great suggestions here. Here are a few others, ranging from what most people would call philosophy to books that are deeply informed by philosophy but move into less defined disciplinary territory:

I would suggest some of Nietzsche's lesser-known works. For example, The Gay Science contains essays on some of his most famous ideas, like the death of god and the eternal recurrence. It also includes maybe my favorite explanation of the purpose of philosophy: since ancient times, Nietzsche writes, philosophy has sought to do harm to stupidity, to deprive stupidity of its self-assurance. What could be more urgent today?

Also, two more books by Susan Buck-Morss, who has been mentioned above: Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History and Dreamworld and Catastrophe.

And how about Fredric Jameson? Particularly those of his books that offer philosophical analyses of culture, such as Postmodernism.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 12:10 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

For the Jameson, Foucault, etc. "Late French Thought" angle, Postmodernism: A Reader is a great anthology, or at least it's one that I like.
posted by rhizome at 12:29 PM on April 18, 2018

Montaigne's essays are philosophical and deal with weighty topics, but his personality shines through and makes for delightful reading. On the more philosophical end, there's "To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die". But he covered a lot of subjects; browse through this list and see what titles interest you.
posted by beatrice rex at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m currently rereading Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions and finding it a fairly light and pleasurable read for something that is also honestly thought-provoking. I also love Bernard Williams and Ronald Dworkin as lively and fun prose stylists: I recommend Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosphy and (in opposition) Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish also has the compulsive readability of a great novel.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:50 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

David Foster Wallace went bananas over Wittgenstein's Mistress
posted by Dmenet at 12:52 PM on April 18, 2018

The Greeks and the Existentialists are what you're looking for.

The Greeks, with the exception of Aristotle, are exceedingly readable, often to the point where you forget you're reading serious academic work. Plato is probably my favorite, but I've spent time with Marcus Aurelius (a Roman, but he wrote in Greek), Epictetus, and Zeno's paradoxes.

The Existentialists (which I'm using to include proto-existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as well as the twentieth-century variety) tended to write in a more narrative style. Kierkegaard, especially, enjoyed narrative tricks and eschewed traditional dry philosophy. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also enjoyed being assholes, poking the bear of contemporary society. Say what you will about it as philosophy, but it's pretty fun to read. Sartre and Camus were actual novelists in addition to being serious philosophers, so their philosophical output is matched by easy-to-read fiction and drama. Everybody knows "The Stranger" and "No Exit", but there's a lot more than that.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera is a novel extrapolated from a concept of Nietzche's. Its literary merits have been debated (Maciej Cieglowski calls Kundera the Slavic Dave Matthews), but it's one of the quickest-reading books I've ever read.

I was going to suggest Montaigne, but on preview, someone beat me to it. A little less readable than some of the others, but still pretty fun and occasionally lighthearted (e.g., "On the Custom of Wearing Clothes").

And I'll never miss a chance to plug my favorite, la Rochefoucauld. He's an aphorist, not a serious philosopher, but he's amusing and thought-provoking. Sounds like he's right up your alley.

If you're interested in philosophy podcasts, the Partially Examined Life is pretty good, if a bit too chatty. And In Our Time from the BBC is a classic that has numerous philosophical episodes.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:53 PM on April 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

My bedtime reading at the moment is Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity, which poses the question: can we recognise ourselves in the world of Homer and the Ancient Greeks, or is their mental world completely foreign to us? It's a philosophically rigorous book, but doesn't require any prior knowledge of ancient philosophy: it helps if you know the basic story of the Iliad, but you don't have to have read Plato or Aristotle. The chapters are fairly short (about 25 pages) and with a bit of effort I can get through one chapter in a single sitting, though the argument is very concentrated (not difficult, just concentrated) and I feel I grasp more when I read it a second time.
posted by verstegan at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of Marguerite Yourcenar's novels, particularly The Abyss.
posted by Hypatia at 1:11 PM on April 18, 2018

Sharon Lebell's conversational, plainspoken translation of Epictetus's The Art of Living is one that I greatly enjoy personally and have given as a gift many times. It's stoicism boiled tiny to tiny little non-nonsense koans.

Like this one:
Don't just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:28 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would recommend the novels of Rebeca Newberger Goldstein; especially 36 arguments for the existence of God. But really all her novels and short stories are great. Plato at the Googleplex is really good too.

If you are looking for something really light; I would recommend the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. Delightful. I want to move and live in Edinburgh for a while after reading this guy's stuff.

Like you I derive pleasure from reading about Philosophy is light version rather than trying to get through making sense of Hegel. :-) Another thing you may want to consider is joing a local Meetup Philosophy group. We have a good one here in Chicago where they talk about these weighty issues, but in a Cafe imbibing various intoxicants to make it go down easy!

A lot of existentialist philosophy was thrashed out in the form of fiction. Sartre, Camus and the lot. Nikos Kazantzakis will be up there in the same vein.

Are you interested in the 19th century Russians? Dostoyevsky is pretty much the gold standard for philosophically informed fiction. Especially Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. I am tagging this thread also as there are some good recommendations here. Thanks for asking this question.
posted by indianbadger1 at 1:52 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

There’s also Candide, to annoy the optimists in your life.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:22 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in legal philosophy, I think you could do worse than some Rawls and Dworkin. Jeremy Waldron is also terrific, once you've made your way through the previous two.
posted by saladin at 6:10 PM on April 18, 2018

Hoo boy Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig will be right up your alley. I wish I were you, just so I could read it again for the first time.
posted by workerant at 6:16 PM on April 18, 2018

Alain de Botton...
posted by Doc_Sock at 6:46 PM on April 18, 2018

I used to like Iris Murdoch, especially The Sea The Sea which won the Booker prize. Not existentialism, more Plato and Aristotle. She was a philosopher as well as a fiction author.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 9:46 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

This one leans more toward political science than straight philosophy, but I'm reading Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone right now and I'm enjoying it for very much the same reasons I enjoy reading philosophy works.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:01 AM on April 19, 2018

This is probably going a little in another direction, but there's a whole series of illustrated "comic" philosophy books with titles of the format "Introducing X: A Graphic Guide".

They're obviously not deep dives, but are great introductions to various philosophers/philosophical topics. My long term roommate was a Philosophy major in college and they were perfect bathroom reading, and frankly, good overviews. My roommate swears by them; credits them for his degree.

I'd be skeptical of the Kindle versions as they're obviously heavy on illustration.

(There's a similiar one "X for Beginners" that I didn't like as much.).
posted by booooooze at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2018

I have the Miles Davis and Foucault "For Beginners" books and I liked them. Published by "Writers and Readers," fwiw.
posted by rhizome at 1:43 PM on April 19, 2018

I should probably recommend Wittgenstein's On Certainty, which is very accessible, and in bite sized pieces which work well before going to bed.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:01 PM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

No mention yet of Deleuze & Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, perfect for continuing your French 20th century postmodernist phil journey. Accessible is a strong word, but it's good fun
posted by dis_integration at 6:20 AM on May 2, 2018

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