The Greatest "Existentialist" Books of All Time

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This list represents a comprehensive and trusted collection of the greatest books. Developed through a specialized algorithm, it brings together 280 'best of' book lists to form a definitive guide to the world's most acclaimed books. For those interested in how these books are chosen, additional details can be found on the rankings page.

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Existentialist

Existentialist literature is a genre that explores the meaning and purpose of human existence, often through the lens of individual experience and subjective perception. These books often delve into themes of freedom, choice, and responsibility, and may challenge traditional notions of morality and societal norms. Existentialist literature can be introspective and philosophical, and may offer readers a unique perspective on the human condition and the search for meaning in a complex and often chaotic world.

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  1. 1. The Stranger by Albert Camus

    The narrative follows a man who, after the death of his mother, falls into a routine of indifference and emotional detachment, leading him to commit an act of violence on a sun-drenched beach. His subsequent trial becomes less about the act itself and more about his inability to conform to societal norms and expectations, ultimately exploring themes of existentialism, absurdism, and the human condition.

  2. 2. The Trial by Franz Kafka

    The book revolves around a bank clerk who wakes one morning to find himself under arrest for an unspecified crime. Despite not being detained, he is subjected to the psychological torment of a bizarre and nightmarish judicial process. The story is a critique of bureaucracy, exploring themes of guilt, alienation and the inefficiency of the justice system.

  3. 3. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

    In this novel, the protagonist, a young, ordinary man, visits his cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Intending to stay for only a few weeks, he ends up remaining there for seven years, becoming a patient himself. The book explores his experiences and relationships with other patients and staff, delving into philosophical discussions on life, time, and the nature of disease. It also provides a vivid portrayal of the European society and intellectual life on the eve of World War I.

  4. 4. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

    "Waiting for Godot" is a play that explores themes of existentialism, despair, and the human condition through the story of two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait endlessly for a man named Godot, who never arrives. While they wait, they engage in a variety of discussions and encounter three other characters. The play is characterized by its minimalistic setting and lack of a traditional plot, leaving much to interpretation.

  5. 5. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

    Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the novel follows the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul with a severe alcohol addiction. Through his interactions with his estranged wife and half-brother, the book explores themes of despair, betrayal, and the destructive power of addiction, against the backdrop of political and social unrest. The impending eruption of the nearby volcano serves as a metaphor for Firmin's deteriorating mental state and the looming world war.

  6. 6. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

    The book tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. His transformation causes him to lose his job and become ostracized from his family, who are horrified and repulsed by his new form. As he grapples with his new reality, he becomes increasingly isolated and starts to lose his sense of humanity. The book explores themes of alienation, guilt, and identity, and is a profound examination of the human condition.

  7. 7. Journey to the End of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

    The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that explores the harsh realities of life through the cynical and disillusioned eyes of the protagonist. The narrative follows his experiences from the trenches of World War I, through the African jungles, to the streets of America and the slums of Paris, showcasing the horrors of war, colonialism, and the dark side of human nature. The protagonist's journey is marked by his struggle with despair, loneliness, and the absurdity of existence, offering a bleak yet profound commentary on the human condition.

  8. 8. The Castle by Franz Kafka

    This novel presents the story of a man who arrives in a village and struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities who govern it from a castle. The protagonist, a surveyor, faces the constant frustration of his efforts to make contact with the elusive authorities and integrate into village society. The book explores themes of alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal.

  9. 9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

    Set against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history, the novel explores the philosophical concept of Nietzsche's eternal return through the intertwined lives of four characters: a womanizing surgeon, his intellectual wife, his naïve mistress, and her stoic lover. The narrative delves into their personal struggles with lightness and heaviness, freedom and fate, love and betrayal, and the complexities of human relationships, all while offering a profound meditation on the nature of existence and the paradoxes of life.

  10. 10. The Plague by Albert Camus

    The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran during the 1940s, where a deadly plague sweeps through, causing the city to be quarantined. The story is told through the eyes of a doctor who witnesses the horror and suffering caused by the disease. The narrative explores themes of human resilience, solidarity, and the struggle against the absurdities of life. It also examines how individuals and society respond to death and disease, creating a profound meditation on the nature of existence and human endurance.

  11. 11. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

    "The Man Without Qualities" is a satirical novel set in Vienna during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It follows the life of Ulrich, a thirty-two-year-old mathematician, who is in search of a sense of life and reality but is caught up in the societal changes and political chaos of his time. The book explores themes of existentialism, morality, and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

  12. 12. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

    The novel presents a poignant exploration of a man's struggle with his dual nature. The protagonist, a middle-aged man, finds himself torn between his humanistic, intellectual tendencies and his more primitive, wolf-like instincts. As he navigates his way through the surreal and sometimes hallucinatory world, he encounters various characters who challenge his views and push him towards self-discovery and transformation. The narrative delves into themes of alienation, the subconscious mind, and the search for meaning in life.

  13. 13. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

    This collection of stories offers a comprehensive look at the work of a renowned author, known for his surreal and often unsettling depictions of modern life. The stories explore themes of existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity, often through narratives in which ordinary people face extraordinary, inexplicable circumstances. The collection showcases the author's unique style and his profound influence on 20th-century literature.

  14. 14. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

    The protagonist, a young stockbroker in New Orleans, is alienated, detached, and finds more reality in movies and books than in his everyday life. He searches for meaning in life, often through his relationships with his aunt and his cousin, while also dealing with existential dread and the impending reality of turning 30. This exploration of alienation and search for identity in the modern world won the National Book Award for Fiction.

  15. 15. Molloy by Samuel Beckett

    "Molloy" is a complex and enigmatic novel that follows the journey of its eponymous character, an elderly, disabled vagabond, who is tasked with finding and killing a certain person. The narrative is split into two parts: the first is told from Molloy's perspective as he navigates his way through a strange and often hostile world, while the second follows a detective named Moran who is assigned to find Molloy. The novel is renowned for its challenging narrative structure, its bleak and absurdist humor, and its profound exploration of themes such as identity, existence, and the human condition.

  16. 16. Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre

    The novel follows a historian living in a small French town, struggling with a strange and unsettling feeling of disgust and revulsion he calls 'nausea'. He grapples with the existential dread of his own existence and the meaningless of life, continually questioning his own perceptions and the nature of reality. As he navigates through his everyday life, he is plagued by his philosophical thoughts and the overwhelming sensation of nausea, leading him to a profound existential crisis.

  17. 17. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

    This philosophical novel explores the idea of the Übermensch, or "Overman," a superior human being who has achieved self-mastery and created personal meaning in life. The protagonist, Zarathustra, descends from his solitary life in the mountains to share his wisdom with humanity. Through a series of speeches and encounters, he challenges traditional beliefs about good, evil, truth, and religion, and advocates for the transcendence of man into a higher form of existence. The book is noted for its critique of morality, its poetic and often cryptic language, and its exploration of complex philosophical concepts.

  18. 18. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

    This novel is a complex, multi-layered narrative that explores themes of addiction, recovery, and the human condition in a near-future society. The story is set in a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, and it intertwines the lives of its numerous characters, including a gifted but troubled teenage tennis prodigy, his filmmaker father, and a group of Quebecois separatists. The book is known for its length, intricate plot, and extensive use of footnotes.

  19. 19. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

    In this novel, a young intellectual who is immersed in books and ideas embarks on a journey with a passionate and adventurous older man named Zorba. The two men have contrasting personalities, which leads to a series of philosophical discussions and adventures. The story is set in Crete and explores themes of life, death, friendship, love, and the struggle between the physical and intellectual aspects of existence. Zorba's zest for life and his fearlessness in the face of death inspire the young man to embrace a more physical and spontaneous way of living.

  20. 20. Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch

    The novel explores the final hours of the Roman poet Virgil, who, while on his deathbed, contemplates the value and impact of his life's work, particularly his unfinished epic, the Aeneid. The narrative is a complex, stream-of-consciousness meditation on art, life, and death, with Virgil wrestling with his desire to burn his epic and the emperor's command to preserve it. The book delves into themes of the meaning of human existence, the role of art in society, and the clash between the individual's inner world and the external world.

  21. 21. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

    "Labyrinths" is a collection of short stories and essays that explore complex themes of infinity, parallel universes, and the blurred lines between reality and illusion. The narratives often feature protagonists who are scholars or librarians, trapped in surreal, metaphysical landscapes. The author's unique writing style combines elements of magical realism, philosophy, and detective fiction, creating an intricate web of narratives that challenge the reader's perception of reality and fiction.

  22. 22. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    This novel is a profound exploration of the human psyche through the eyes of a bitter and isolated retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The protagonist, a self-proclaimed "sick" and "spiteful" man, delves into his past experiences and personal philosophies in a series of rambling and often contradictory monologues. His existential musings touch on themes such as free will, determinism, and the nature of human action, often challenging the prevailing ideologies of his time. The narrative provides a deep and unsettling insight into the darker aspects of human consciousness.

  23. 23. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

    "Wise Blood" is a novel about a young man named Hazel Motes, who returns home to Tennessee after serving in World War II and finds his religious beliefs shaken. He becomes a street preacher, founding the Church Without Christ to preach his message of faithlessness. The book explores themes of redemption, faith, and the struggle between belief and atheism as Hazel interacts with a variety of eccentric characters and faces his own internal battles.

  24. 24. The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

    "The Unnamable" is a complex, stream-of-consciousness narrative that explores themes of existence, identity, and the nature of reality. The protagonist, who lacks a clear identity, is trapped in a void and continually questions his existence and reality. As he grapples with his own consciousness, he attempts to tell his story, but constantly doubts and revises it, creating a cyclical, fragmented narrative. The novel is known for its challenging, abstract prose and its exploration of existentialist themes.

  25. 25. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

    Set in the 23rd century, the novel revolves around a highly intellectual game, the Glass Bead Game, which incorporates all fields of human and cosmic knowledge. The story follows the life of Joseph Knecht, a scholar who becomes a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game). The book explores his life and thoughts, including his relationships with others and his questioning of the values of his society. The narrative is a profound exploration of human life, knowledge, and spirituality.

Reading Statistics

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If you're interested in downloading this list as a CSV file for use in a spreadsheet application, you can easily do so by clicking the button below. Please note that to ensure a manageable file size and faster download, the CSV will include details for only the first 500 books.

Download