Sometimes, when faced with challenging situations, or perhaps even the mundanity of routine, we find ourselves asking questions. What does it all mean? Am I in the right place? Is there really an answer to the great big why of it all?
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These questions have fascinated humanity, including writers, for ages. Some have pondered out loud and on paper enough to formulate some kind of response. These searchers have taken to libraries and to nature, pursuing some kind of meaning for themself, and to publish and share with others. On the other hand, some great artists are naturally talented and manage to capture some of life’s meaning in fairytales and fiction.
In the selections below, you'll find a rich combination of philosophy, Persian poetry, journals, and naturalist essays. If you give it a chance, one is sure to make its mark on you.
Best Fiction Books on Finding Life’s Meaning
You may recognize some of the books in this first selection. Each one asks you to step outside your comfort zone to find meaning hidden in plain sight.
1. The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Written in 1943, this short story has been used to help people explore patience, acceptance, and love. The Little Prince is a life-changing book for both children and adults across every latitude and existence.
Inside, you’ll discover a unique relationship between the fox and the Little Prince. From the fox’s point of view, you’ll discover meaning in his sweet little life, and maybe yours, too.
2. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The human spirit is strong and determined. If we set our minds steady, we can find the courage to act, even in moments of deafening silence.
Being isolated doesn’t mean that you have to give up or give in. In fact, Yann Martel’s book challenges the reader to discover their limits, find their fears—and own them.
3. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
In his book, Carter writes of a young part-Cherokee boy called Little Tree who goes to live with his grandparents after he is orphaned.
There, the boy is taught lessons in charity, courage, acceptance, appreciation for nature, and a love for reading. While the story reels with challenges and heartache, it's also about survival in the face of adversity.
4. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
As you read and reread Siddhartha at different stages in your life, you'll find your connection to it changes with you.
A younger version of yourself might internalize lessons differently than the more experienced version of who you are today, or who you might be tomorrow. Hesse's novel thereby exposes that the meaning of life travels its own roads, too—sometimes waiting for you to catch up
5. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Philosophy is one of our greatest instructors. Not because the teachers tell you what to think, but because they help you understand why to think. Afterward, it is up to you to decide what to do with that understanding.
In The Prophet, Gibran offers hundreds of useful philosophies that compel the internal search for the meaning of life. When you have finished reading this book, you'll likely want to gift several copies to your friends.
6. Rubaiyat (رباعيات خيام) by Omar Khayyam
Within this beautiful, ancient Persian poem, you'll discover that life and death are intimately connected. One can't exist without the other. Love, too, can't live without both life and death creating a yearning and lust.
No one knows where they will be born. No one knows where they will die. But we do know where we will drink and be tempted, so the moments are yours to seize—or not.
7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this dystopian novel, you are introduced to children of the future being raised in an orphanage. The meaning of life is not found in them so much as it is found in how they came to be, and also why they choose to remain locked inside this world of fear.
The book challenges you to look both forward and outward to examine how you would react in a complex creation of humanity—or lack thereof.
Best Nonfiction Books on the Meaning of Life
As humans, we seek to protect our family and faiths. We wish to grow our minds and hearts. To do this takes courage, determination, and a lot of faith.
8. The Hardest Life I Could Ever Love, The Memoirs of Mary B. Blahnik by Frederick Blahnik
All of Mary's hopes and dreams came crashing down when the doctors informed her that her 43-year-old husband had contracted polio. How much could this pregnant farmer's wife with seven small children handle?
Through actual journal entries, you'll discover that, for Mary, the meaning of life is about three simple things. One, put your faith in God. Two, love and keep your family first. And three, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
For some, Walden is one of the most life-altering books ever written. Thoreau's ponderings and ideas encouraged people to embrace the beauty of nature, rather than see it as something inaccessible.
Thoreau writes, "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."
10. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, MD
In Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande describes how physicians struggle with age, fragility, and mortality. When providing cancer treatment for their patients, doctors often treat life as a destination rather than a journey.
Gawande shares his experiences and vision for embracing medicine as a practice for the whole patient. He wants to revolutionize the way we see death, creating a culture of death positivity versus the current culture of fear by prescription.
11. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Suzuki writes, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's, there are few." It is with the daily reflection of Shoshin that you'll discover a way of experiencing life that is more spectacular and increasingly life-affirming.
A morning will not be like other mornings. A birdsong will become dissimilar to the birdsongs from yesterday. With enough practice, your mind will open itself to more compassion, perhaps making this one of the most influential books you'll ever read.
12. My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir
John Muir was one of our country’s most notable conservation advocates and environmental essayists. Mother Nature was his muse while the California Sierras were his heartbeat. My First Summer in the Sierra expresses the immeasurable delight of escorting sheep from winter to summer pastures.
The resplendent boon of Springtime echoed his reverence for all-natural life, resulting in the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892.
13. The Ivington Diaries by Monty Don
From January to December, Monty Don shares with you his ever-changing garden, including his thoughts and observations about life. To him, "[g]ardening is one of the few domestic activities that can force you to work within the rhythm of the seasons and the natural annual cycle."
In this, the meaning to life becomes less about what is internal, and more about external forces, shaping your ability to adapt to things of which you have little or no control.
14. A Sand County Almanac, And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold
Those who know how to protect land understand that you must observe what the Earth does of its own volition before you step in and start making changes.
Our Earth's biodiversity is a finely-tuned energy circuit of land, air, and water—and everything alive, growing, changing, or dying therein. For Leopold, then, the meaning of life is an awareness of our life inside that energy circuit.
15. The Daily Coyote by Shreve Stockton
Early in her book, the author writes, "[I]n the city, space is shared with thousands upon thousands, and the only thing that's truly yours is time… In the country, the inverse is true."
A leap of faith stole her away from the concrete and noise, delivering Stockton to Wyoming. There, an orphaned coyote helped her learn some of life's biggest lessons, including the path to life’s meaning.
The Meaning of Life is Everywhere
It’s in a fresh bough as a sleeping pad under a wide sky. It’s in a wife’s struggle to provide for her family. It’s in the rebirth of a garden each Spring. Mostly, it’s already right there in your heart. You just need to awaken it.