29 of the Best Philosophy Books of All-Time

The questions of the universe are seemingly never-ending and unanswerable. But luckily we have access to some of the greatest philosophical minds in history through their writing. This reading list of the best philosophy books of all time features works from the greats like Plato and Nietzsche as well as modern reads from inspiring thinkers like the Dalai Lama. Though nothing is absolute in philosophy, one thing is sure — these books will have you thinking long after the last page. Publishers’ descriptions included.

The Tried and True Classics

From Ancient Greek philosophers to 20th-century thought leaders, these best philosophy books of all time feature the must-read ancient and modern classics.

Beyond Good And Evil
by Friedrich Nietzsche

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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is a critical response to metaphysical writings that try to define good and evil. Nietzsche advocates for an individualized way of thinking that focuses on the realities of life and that ignores traditional moral conventions, including religion, free will, and self-consciousness.

Divided into nine subjects areas, Beyond Good and Evil was written in a polemical style consisting of 296 short sections. Published shortly after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil expands on and adds to the ideas of that previous work.


Being and Nothingness
by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Revisit one of the most important pillars in modern philosophy with this new English translation — the first in more than 60 years — of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal treatise on existentialism.

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, and laid the foundation of his legacy as one of the greatest 20th-century philosophers. A brilliant and radical account of the human condition, Being and Nothingness explores what gives our lives significance.

In a new, more accessible translation, this foundational text argues that we alone create our values and our existence is characterized by freedom and the inescapability of choice. Far from being an internal, passive container for our thoughts and experiences, the human consciousness is constantly projecting itself into the outside world and imbuing it with meaning.

Now with a new foreword by Harvard professor of philosophy Richard Moran, this clear-eyed translation guarantees that the groundbreaking ideas that Sartre introduced in this resonant work will continue to inspire for generations to come.


The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne
by Michel de Montaigne

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With the goal of describing man with complete frankness and using himself as his most frequent example, Michel de Montaigne first published his Essays in 1580.

This collection of 107 chapters encompasses a wide variety of subjects, originally inspired by his study of Latin classics, and later by the lives of the leading figures of his time. Michel de Montaigne saw the most basic elements of man as variety and unpredictability, and this idea permeates the entire work, even as he explores a myriad of topics, including theology, philosophy, law, fame, memory, death, and his own daily schedule.

The longest essay, entitled ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ contains his most famous quote: “What do I know?” This perhaps embodies the spirit of the entire volume, for it reflects both the inquisitory search for intellectual knowledge as well as the more personal anecdotal quality of a work that has had an enduring impact on both French and English literature for hundreds of years. This edition includes the complete collection of Montaigne’s Essays.


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
by Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Annius Verus was born in Rome, A. D. 121, and assumed the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, by which he is known to history, on his adoption by the Emperor T. Aurelius Antoninus. M. Aurelius was educated by the orator Fronto, but turned aside from rhetoric to the study of the Stoic philosophy, of which he was the last distinguished representative. The Meditations, which he wrote in Greek, are among the most noteworthy expressions of this system, and exhibit it favorably on its practical side. The Meditationspicture with faithfulness the mind and character of this noblest of the emperors. Simple in style and sincere in tone, they record, for posterity, the height reached by pagan aspiration in its effort to solve the problem of conduct; and the essential agreement of his practice, coupled with his teaching, proved that even in a palace life may be led well.


The Dialogues of Plato
by Plato

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Socrates’s ancient words are still true, and the ideas found in Plato’s Dialogues still form the foundation of a thinking person’s education. This superb collection contains excellent contemporary translations selected for their clarity and accessibility to today’s reader, as well as an incisive introduction by Erich Segal, which reveals Plato’s life and clarifies the philosophical issues examined in each dialogue. The first four dialogues recount the trial and execution of Socrates — the extraordinary tragedy that changed Plato’s life and forever altered the course of Western thought. Other dialogues create a rich tableau of intellectual life in Athens in the fourth century B. C., and examine such timeless — and timely — issues as the nature of virtue and love, knowledge and truth, and society and the individual. Resounding with the humor and astounding brilliance of Socrates, the immortal iconoclast, these great works remain powerful, probing, and essential.


Confessions of Saint Augustine
by Augustine of Hippo

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St. Augustine’s Confessions was written between AD 397-400. An autobiographical work, it was written in 13 parts, each a complete text intended to be read aloud. Written in his early 40s, it documents the development of Augustine’s thought from childhood into his adult life — a life he considered in retrospect to be both sinful and immoral. He was in his early 30s before he converted to Christianity, but was soon ordained as a priest and became a bishop not long after.

Confessions not only documented his conversion but sought to offer guidance to others taking the same path. Considered to be the first Western autobiography to be written, Augustine’s work (including the subsequent ‘City of God’) became a major influence on Christian writers for the next 1,000 years and remains a much-valued contribution to Christian thinking.

This edition uses the classic translation from Latin by E.B. Pusey (1838) with a partial modernization of the text to assist the modern reader.


Meditations On The First Philosophy
by Rene Descartes

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In Meditations on First Philosophy, French philosopher René Descartes, now regarded as the father of Western philosophy, introduces the concept of the dichotomy — the separation of mind and body — by determining, “I think, therefore I am.”


Man’s Search For Meaning
by Viktor E Frankl

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Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory — known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”) — holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.


The Second Sex
by Simone de Beauvoir

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Simone de Beauvoir’s essential masterwork is a powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman,” and a revolutionary exploration of inequality and otherness. Unabridged in English for the first time, this long-awaited edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come.


A Treatise of Human Nature
by David Hume

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One of the most significant works of Western philosophy, Hume’s Treatise was published in 1739-40, before he was 30 years old. A pinnacle of English empiricism, it is a comprehensive attempt to apply scientific methods of observation to a study of human nature, and a vigorous attack upon the principles of traditional metaphysical thought. With masterly eloquence, Hume denies the immortality of the soul and the reality of space; considers the manner in which we form concepts of identity, cause and effect; and speculates upon the nature of freedom, virtue, and emotion. Opposed both to metaphysics and to rationalism, Hume’s philosophy of informed scepticism sees man not as a religious creation, nor as a machine, but as a creature dominated by sentiment, passion, and appetite.


The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
by Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action. Aristotle argued that happiness and well-being is the goal of life, and that a person’s pursuit of such, rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.


Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu

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No other English translation of this greatest of the Chinese classics can match Ursula Le Guin’s striking new version. Le Guin, best known for thought-provoking science fiction novels that have helped to transform the genre, has studied the Tao Te Ching for more than forty years. She has consulted the literal translations and worked with Chinese scholars to develop a version that lets the ancient text speak in a fresh way to modern people, while remaining faithful to the poetic beauty of the work. Avoiding scholarly interpretations and esoteric Taoist insights, she has revealed the Tao Te Ching ’s immediate relevance and power, as well as its depth and refreshing humor, in a way that shows better than ever before why it has been so much loved for more than 2,500 years. Included are Le Guin’s own personal commentary and notes on the text. This new version is sure to be welcomed by the many readers of the Tao Te Ching as well as those coming to the text for the first time.


Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
by Seneca

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As chief adviser to the emperor Nero, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was most influential in ancient Rome as a power behind the throne. His lasting fame derives from his writings on Stoic ideology, in which philosophy is a practical form of self-improvement rather than a matter of argument or wordplay. Seneca’s letters to a young friend advise action rather than reflection, addressing the issues that confront every generation: how to achieve a good life, how to avoid corruption and self-indulgence, and how to live without fear of death.

Written in an intimate, conversational style, the letters reflect the traditional Stoic focus on living in accordance with nature and accepting the world on its own terms. The philosopher emphasizes the Roman values of courage, self-control, and rationality, yet he remains remarkably modern in his tolerant and cosmopolitan attitude. Rich in epigrammatic wit, Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism constitutes a timeless and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.


The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” This statement exemplifies the main idea behind The Social Contract, in other words that man is essentially free if it weren’t for the oppression of political organizations such as government. Rousseau goes on to lay forth the principles that he deems most important for achieving political right amongst people. Contained within this volume are also two discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,’ Rousseau examines the causes of the inequalities that exist among men, concluding that it is the natural result of the formation of any civilization. In ‘A Discourse on Political Economy,’ Rousseau examines the nature of politics and their effect on people. These three works lay a solid foundation for the political philosophy of Rousseau and are a must read for any student of political science or philosophy.


The Critique of Pure Reason
by Immanuel Kant

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Immanuel’s Kant’s groundbreaking work, considered to be among the most influential philosophical texts in the Western canon.

Familiar to philosophy students through the centuries, The Critique of Pure Reason is in many ways Kant’s magnum opus. First published in 1781, it seeks to define what can be known by reason alone without evidence from experience. Kant begins by defining a posteriori knowledge, which is gained through the senses, versus a priori knowledge, or self-evident truths understood without the benefit of experience. He then examines these two types of knowledge in the context of analytic and synthetic judgments, using the relationship between them to conclude that through reason alone, humans are capable of reaching deep universal truths. Kant then demonstrates how  even as much of the world around us can never be truly known — the laws of the universe are in fact made possible by the human capacity for reason itself.

Sparking intense and lasting discussion, The Critique of Pure Reason remains essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the ideas that, since their initial publication, have gone on to shape much of Western philosophy.


The Prince
by Niccolò Machiavelli

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As a young Florentine envoy to the courts of France and the Italian principalities, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was able to observe firsthand the lives of people strongly united under one powerful ruler. His fascination with that political rarity and his intense desire to see the Medici family assume a similar role in Italy provided the foundation for his “primer for princes.” In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies, and the treatment of conquered peoples. Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars, and general readers as well.


History of Western Philosophy
by Bertrand Russell

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Hailed as “lucid and magisterial” by The Observer, this book is universally acclaimed as the outstanding one-volume work on the subject of Western philosophy.

Considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of all-time, A History of Western Philosophy is a dazzlingly unique exploration of the ideologies of significant philosophers throughout the ages — from Plato and Aristotle through to Spinoza, Kant, and the 20th century. Written by a man who changed the history of philosophy himself, this is an account that has never been rivaled since its first publication over 60 years ago.

Since its first publication in 1945, Lord Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is still unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, its clarity, its erudition, its grace, and its wit. In 76 chapters he traces philosophy from the rise of Greek civilization to the emergence of logical analysis in the 20th century.

Modern Philosophy Books

Looking to branch out to some of the more modern best philosophy books of all time? Here are releases from recent years that are sure to get you thinking.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig

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Acclaimed as one of the most exciting books in the history of American letters, this modern epic became an instant bestseller upon publication in 1974, transforming a generation and continuing to inspire millions. This 25th Anniversary Quill Edition features a new introduction by the author; important typographical changes; and a Reader’s Guide that includes discussion topics, an interview with the author, and letters and documents detailing how this extraordinary book came to be. A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator’s relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a touching and transcendent book of life.


The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills

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In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.


The Book of Joy
by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams

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Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships — or, as they would say, because of them — they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.

In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness’s 80th birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?

They traded intimate stories, teased each other continually, and shared their spiritual practices. By the end of a week filled with laughter and punctuated with tears, these two global heroes had stared into the abyss and despair of our time and revealed how to live a life brimming with joy.

This book offers us a rare opportunity to experience their astonishing and unprecendented week together, from the first embrace to the final good-bye.

We get to listen as they explore the ‘Nature of True Joy’ and confront each of the ‘Obstacles of Joy’ — from fear, stress, and anger to grief, illness, and death. They then offer us the ‘Eight Pillars of Joy,’ which provide the foundation for lasting happiness. Throughout, they include stories, wisdom, and science. Finally, they share their daily ‘Joy Practices’ that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.

The Archbishop has never claimed sainthood, and the Dalai Lama considers himself a simple monk. In this unique collaboration, they offer us the reflection of real lives filled with pain and turmoil in the midst of which they have been able to discover a level of peace, of courage, and of joy to which we can all aspire in our own lives.


The 48 Laws of Power
by Robert Greene

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Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this multi-million-copy New York Times bestseller is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control — from the author of The Laws of Human Nature.

In the book that People magazine proclaimed “beguiling” and “fascinating,” Robert Greene and Joost Elffers have distilled 3,000 years of the history of power into 48 essential laws by drawing from the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz and also from the lives of figures ranging from Henry Kissinger to P.T. Barnum.

Some laws teach the need for prudence (‘Law 1: Never Outshine the Master’), others teach the value of confidence (‘Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness’), and many recommend absolute self-preservation (‘Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally’). Every law, though, has one thing in common: an interest in total domination. In a bold and arresting two-color package, The 48 Laws of Power is ideal whether your aim is conquest, self-defense, or simply to understand the rules of the game.


The Path
by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael Puett

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For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas — like the fallacy of the authentic self — can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.

Astonishing teachings emerged 2,000 years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counter-intuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.

In other words, The Path “opens the mind” (Huffington Post) and upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place — just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.


How to Live
by Sarah Bakewell

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How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love — such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?

This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official, and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over 400 years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment — and in search of themselves.

This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers — who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “How to live?”


The Wisdom of Insecurity
by Alan W. Watts

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We live in an age of unprecedented anxiety. Spending all our time trying to anticipate and plan for the future and to lamenting the past, we forget to embrace the here and now. We are so concerned with tomorrow that we forget to enjoy today. Drawing from Eastern philosophy and religion, Alan Watts shows that it is only by acknowledging what we do not — and cannot — know that we can learn anything truly worth knowing. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, he shows us how, in order to lead a fulfilling life, we must embrace the present — and live fully in the now.


Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
by Richard Rorty

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In this 1989 book Rorty argues that thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein have enabled societies to see themselves as historical contingencies, rather than as expressions of underlying, ahistorical human nature or as realizations of suprahistorical goals. This ironic perspective on the human condition is valuable on a private level, although it cannot advance the social or political goals of liberalism. In fact Rorty believes that it is literature not philosophy that can do this, by promoting a genuine sense of human solidarity. A truly liberal culture, acutely aware of its own historical contingency, would fuse the private, individual freedom of the ironic, philosophical perspective with the public project of human solidarity as it is engendered through the insights and sensibilities of great writers. The book has a characteristically wide range of reference from philosophy through social theory to literary criticism. It confirms Rorty’s status as a uniquely subtle theorist, whose writing will prove absorbing to academic and nonacademic readers alike.


Sophie’s World
by Jostein Gaarder

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One day Sophie comes home from school to find two questions in her mail: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” Before she knows it she is enrolled in a correspondence course with a mysterious philosopher. Thus begins Jostein Gaarder’s unique novel, which is not only a mystery, but also a complete and entertaining history of philosophy.


Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot

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This book presents a history of spiritual exercises from Socrates to early Christianity, an account of their decline in modern philosophy, and a discussion of the different conceptions of philosophy that have accompanied the trajectory and fate of the theory and practice of spiritual exercises. Hadot’s book demonstrates the extent to which philosophy has been, and still is, above all else a way of seeing and of being in the world.


Aristotle’s Way
by Edith Hall

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From renowned classicist Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Way is an examination of one of history’s greatest philosophers, showing us how to lead happy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to inquire into subjective happiness, and he understood its essence better and more clearly than anyone since. According to Aristotle, happiness is not about well-being, but instead a lasting state of contentment, which should be the ultimate goal of human life. We become happy through finding a purpose, realizing our potential, and modifying our behavior to become the best version of ourselves. With these objectives in mind, Aristotle developed a humane program for becoming a happy person, which has stood the test of time, comprising much of what today we associate with the good life: meaning, creativity, and positivity. Most importantly, Aristotle understood happiness as available to the vast majority us, but only, crucially, if we decide to apply ourselves to its creation — and he led by example. As Hall writes, “If you believe that the goal of human life is to maximize happiness, then you are a budding Aristotelian.”

In expert yet vibrant modern language, Hall lays out the crux of Aristotle’s thinking, mixing affecting autobiographical anecdotes with a deep wealth of classical learning. For Hall, whose own life has been greatly improved by her understanding of Aristotle, this is an intensely personal subject. She distills his ancient wisdom into ten practical and universal lessons to help us confront life’s difficult and crucial moments, summarizing a lifetime of the most rarefied and brilliant scholarship.

By Alyssa Hollingsworth

Alternate History Fiction Books to Read Now

The question of “what if…” is a jumping off point for many authors. It’s the deceptively simple engine driving a wealth of great fiction. It’s the query at the center of one of literature’s most fascinating – and occasionally terrifying – genres: alternate history. The notion that history could be altered by a single, sometimes seemingly innocuous event has proven a fascinating playground for some of literature’s most imaginative and adventurous minds.

The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal underground rail system devised to carry runaway slaves to freedom.The story centers around Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who makes a desperate bid for freedom.However, she is doggedly pursued by a ruthless slavecatcher in a story that is both brilliantly imagined and painfully timely.

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Black Chamber
Set in a world where Teddy Roosevelt is elected President for a second time and World War I is just on the horizon, Roosevelt relies on a top secret clandestine network known as the Black Chamber. The novel centers around Luz O’Malley Arostegui, a deadly spy set on a mission to infiltrate the German Reich and discover how the desperate country intends to deal with the United States.

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The Plot Against America
Originally published in 2004, this novel by the late Philip Roth feels unfortunately timely. Here, the inimitable Roth imagines an alternate history that sees Franklin Roosevelt lose the 1940 election to the zealous isolationism of Charles Lindbergh, who was a spokesman for the America First Committee and often spoke against the media and blamed American Jews for pushing the U.S. toward involvement in WWII. The novel follows the Lindbergh administration as they begin an insidious campaign of institutionalized anti-semitism and make peace with Hitler’s Germany. While disturbingly plausible at the time, The Plot Against America now has a whole new level of unfortunate relevance and, in some ways, feels all too prescient.

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The Years of Rice and Salt
This sprawling novel reimagines much of world history and spans centuries.What if rather than killing off a third of Europe’s population, the Black Plague had killed ninety-nine percent?According to the imagination of Kim Stanley Robinson, the result would be a world where China is the first country to reach the New World, colonizing from west to east, where the Industrial Revolution began in India, and Buddhism and Islam are the world’s most influential religions.It’s a fascinating and sweeping alternate history.

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Making History
Making History follows a Cambridge graduate student named Michael Young who is completing his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler when he becomes entangled with an aging German physicistand Holocaust survivor.Together they discover a way to change the course of modern history. Their success brings about a new world — but is it better or worse than the one they knew?

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It Can’t Happen Here
This classic cautionary tale is an unnervingly plausible look at the fragility of American democracy and how easily and insidiously fascism could take hold in the U.S. Written during the Great Depression, It Can’t Happen Here saw a surge in sales after the 2016 election.The novel charts the rise of populist huckster, Buzz Windrip, touting a return to patriotism and the “traditional” America. His ascent to the Presidency slowly devolves into an authoritarian dictatorship on the back of his attacks on the “liberal” press and his political enemies.It’s as unsettling now as it was in 1935.

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The Difference Engine
This steampunk classic, widely considered the novel that established the genre, is a fascinating exercise in imagination. Part noir and part historical thriller, The Difference Engine positswhat would have occurred had Charles Babbage perfected his Analytical Engine and brought about the age of the computer a century early. The result of deeply influential sci-fi classic.

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Fatherland is a classic of the alternate history genre.It’s a meticulously thought out detective yarn set in a world where the Nazis won World War II.Set in Berlin in 1964, The Greater German Reich enjoys an uneasy peace with the U.S. and is preparing for Adolph Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday as well as a visit from American president, Joseph Kennedy.However, the discovery of a dead body will lead a German detective named Xavier March deep into a shocking conspiracy that reaches the very top of the Reich and could alter the course of history.

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By Keith Rice, August 27, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

Valentine’s Day Ditto, Just for You!

And all the other people who read this blog post…

If Not For You Shelf End Ditto NU


I always joke that I missed my calling as a mafiosa; since I can remember, I have been obsessed with the gangsters of the 1920s through ’40s. I was so pumped to find out in my 20s that my great-great-uncle (Nonamous McBrayer—yes, that was his real-ass name) was a bootlegger in North Carolina. He is legit smiling in his mug shot, y’all. When we checked into our hotel in Havana, I pointed out to my boyfriend they were playing The Godfather‘s theme song. I’m a little obsessed.

Anyway, the first time I went to New York City (I’m from the South), the thing I most wanted to see was the independent Museum of the American Gangster—and it REALLY delivered. I introduce this place because I need y’all to know that the docent at that museum taught me SO much about the culture of the mob, and I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. For example, Al Capone’s famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929—which is the real reason to remember February 14—FAILED. Kind of. Why? The target (Bugs Moran) wasn’t at the garage where he was supposed to be: he was getting a shave and a haircut for a hot date that night. (Granted, this massacre did establish Scarface as the boss of Chicago without him ever getting called to trial, so it wasn’t a total bust.)

My favorite period of gangsters started—of course—as a product of Prohibition. In New York and Chicago, from what I understand, it was illegal to SELL alcohol, but it wasn’t illegal to DRINK alcohol. So, gangsters saw a hole in the economy: there was a demand and no supply. This started the speakeasy concept. If you bought a “membership” it was all-you-could-drink. (Last pitch for the museum, probably-maybe: it’s IN a former speakeasy! I literally walked past it twice.)

What I think so often gets romanticized about gangsters is their ability to bootstrap themselves into success despite open prejudice against them. Although we would consider many of the ethnicities of gangsters “white” by today’s standards, their contemporaries would not have done so. So, while you’re reading this selection, keep in mind that during the 1920s–’40s gangs functioned in part as both a form of either vigilante justice (and God knows I’m a sucker for a vigilante beatdown), or an economy boost for those who otherwise could not even enter the economy.

You undoubtedly know of these two best-movies-of-all-time and the third that we have chosen as a culture to forget, but have you read the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo? Better yet, give it a listen—all the characters are portrayed by different actors, and it’s a lot like watching the extended cut of the film in your brain.

Although this choice probably seems somewhat obvious, the reason why it’s so famous embodies, I think, some significant reasons why our culture is so obsessed with gangsters as a whole. We see traditions of the old world in the new world that requires immigrants to assimilate and stay at the bottom of the economy if they want to be in America, and yet the Corleones do just the opposite. They make their own economy, and they earn trust by providing protection…from America’s law enforcement itself. And these are not old issues. We see them happening on a daily basis, even modern-day.

Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese is arguably about the literal family on whom the Corleones were based, the Bonannos. This book is nonfiction, and its author is one who interviewed the famous mafioso, Joseph Bonanno. What I loved about this book was that Talese does not write himself out of the story, the way many journalists and nonfiction writers choose to do. Rather, he acknowledges that his presence changes the story somewhat.

Another of my favorite scenes from this book happens when Joseph Bonanno watches Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, and he admits something like, “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

Another classic of the 1920s, most people forget that the titular character of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, in fact, a bootlegger. That’s how he made his millions! That’s how he rose to the economic status that Daisy needed in order to justify being with him!

Plus, you have the scene at the party with Meier Wolfsheim in which Gatsby tells Nick, “That’s the man that fixed the 1919 World Series.” Which brings me to my next point…

tough jews rich cohen book cover4. TOUGH JEWS BY RICH COHEN
Most of the gangsters we see in films are Italian, usually Sicilian, and occasionally they’re Irish. The first gangsters, however, were often Jewish. Many fled Europe and the horrors of Adolf Hitler to immigrate to America. Tough Jews by Rich Cohen documents the facts of the Jewish gangsters of the era.

Similarly to the two books above, Tough Jews  by Rachel Rubin discusses fictional representation of Jewish gangsters throughout modern literature, “specifically on the Russian writer Isaac Babel and Americans Mike Gold, Samuel Ornitz, and Daniel Fuchs, but also taking in cartoons, movies, and modernist paintings.” (Description from Amazon.)

If you liked the movie Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese, you’ll like this book, which he used as a reference. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi is a book of journalistic nonfiction about the working class Brooklyn kid, Henry Hill, who was eventually responsible in part for the Lufthansa heist. (Fun fact: Henry Hill is one of the only known  people to be kicked out of the Witness Protection Program; from what I understand, he really liked to brag about that heist.)

Another book adapted by Scorsese (which includes nearly every man I’ve ever loved in its cast), Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury details the turn of the century. This book is another work of journalistic nonfiction which details the Bowery and Five Points and its numerous gangs of the time—including but not limited to Hell Cat Maggie, who traded human ears (her trophies) for drinks.

Part of what makes the gangsters of the 1920s different from what the gangsters we know today is that their trade, in modern perspective, is mostly innocuous. They were hustling a substance that is now legal, alcohol. However, I’d be stupid not to at least mention that modern gangsters don’t hustle alcohol, they hustle drugs, or in the case of Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim, he hustled sex. As you may have noticed from the title, this is a memoir that details the psychology and capitalism of a pimp from his own perspective, of Chicago during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. It is truly chilling.

You’ve likely seen the motion picture starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, but Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom, the book, is what made that possible. The book details Molly Bloom’s rise to “Hollywood’s poker princess,” and her fearless hosting of exclusive high-stakes private poker games, first of celebrity royalty and eventually of the Russian and Italian mobs. This book also details her gradual slide into the illegal aspects of running the game.

Though this book falls out of the category of gangsters from the 1920s–’40s, I’d be remiss not to mention Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson. In this book of gonzo journalism, Thomson—somewhat like Talese—involves himself in the plot itself. The motorcycle gang of the 1960s and ’70s is a different sort of gang than those that we have seen so far, but nonetheless, they live by a strict moral code outside of the law. One of my favorite quotes from this whole book is from Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels: “You treat me good, I treat you better. You treat me bad, I treat you worse.”

This one may also come from off the radar, but No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is the story of how gangs evolved in the American West during the 1980s. Our main antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is a lone wolf, but there are so many people on so many sides of the same fight that it’s hard not to see how gangsters are involved in this one! (It’s also, IMHO, one of the best novels about gangsters ever written.)

Chris Rosales Word is Bone cover gangster valentine's12. WORD IS BONE BY CHRISTOPHER DAVID ROSALES
Though not, at first glance, directly about gangs or gangsters per se, the novel Word is Bone by Christopher David Rosales (who is my actual friend, omg) portrays the neighborhood of Clearwater, California. Here, everyone is involved in crime out of necessity—which is the main reason, I think, the gangster of the 1920s is so romanticized. We don’t love them for being criminals: we love them for their triumph over laws that were clearly written to keep them from triumph. This novel undertakes many of those instances, whether it comes from a loyal daughter sabotaging her mother’s competing sex worker upstairs, the welterweight pimp who defends his neighborhood, or the elderly woman who slanders a potential gangbanger because she thinks he’s trying to seduce a young girl. If you like gangsters and what they stand for, you’ll love this novel.

I always find nonfictional accounts of gangsters fascinating—but even more so when they’re not written by the gangsters themselves. I like to hear the stories from people who knew them. After all, what gangster will ever give you a straight story? Answer: no one. It’s part of the whole deal. But when someone close to them gives the story, well, they may only have some of the facts, but they are more likely facts. Pablo Escobar: My Father by Juan Pablo Escobar, is clearly written by the kingpin’s son. The writeup on Amazon.com says: “This is not the story of a child seeking redemption for his father, but a shocking look at the consequences of violence and the overwhelming need for peace and forgiveness.”

Hot damn. Among the film adaptations of these movies, none cast so many actors with whom I’ve been in love as American Gangster. But the original account, the book Original Gangster by Frank Lucas, touches basically every gangster you’ve ever heard of. Protege to Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas is responsible for nosing in on the Italian families who ran the drug game in New York in the 1960s. He cut out the middle men by smuggling heroin from Asia through the U.S. military. This book details his life, and is not to be missed.

That’s my list of dope gangster books for you to celebrate Valentines’ Day with, but I’m always looking for more—particularly about women. Do you have some to add to my list? Or were they too slick to reveal themselves? Anything about Stephanie St. Clair? Let me know what I need to add to my list by writing in the comments!

And happy Valentine’s Day.

By , February 1


In Mindy Kaling’s recent chat with Variety about what The Office characters were up to in 2019, she revealed there was some part of her who believed that Kelly Kapoor might be in jail for murdering Ryan. This got several Rioters discussing which literary characters we definitely believe are now in jail (or hiding from the authorities, at least). Here are their stories.

Look, basically any of the March sisters could be murderers. Jo and Amy seem like givens, but even Beth had a streak in her, accidentally killing her bird and harboring secrets from her other sisters. The most guilty in this clan is clearly Aunt March, but she is secretly a government spy (or possibly a hitman) and has never actually been accused or caught doing anything untoward because she is too prepared and too clever.

Possibly the brattiest child in the history of all of children’s literature, Veruca is quarantined on an island she was sent to after murdering her father for not winning the lawsuit against the chocolate factory after she was booted out and deemed a “bad nut.” There is a team trained not to succumb to her psychological manipulation as she serves her time far, far away from civilization.

Veruca Salt and her parents Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie still

He’s creepy, he’s self-righteous, and he is most definitely a closet serial killer. (Don’t @ me.)

Rabbit is like that passive-aggressive coworker you can’t believe is leaving notes around the kitchen about how to correctly stack the napkins. He acknowledges that he believes the other Hundred Acre Woods residents are fluff (but he has brains), and he takes charge of all group events, even if people don’t want him to and politely suggest why he shouldn’t be in charge. Hateful toward newcomers and anyone who doesn’t follow his instructions, Rabbit is in Hundred Acre Prison for public destruction and murdering his neighbor after he discovers his garden has been mowed against his wishes.

I don’t even think this one needs an explanation, but this whiny, self-involved, complaining young male surely makes this list for a number of reasons, probably for “accidentally” killing someone, then proclaiming it was in his best interest and that society is out to get him.

The oft-forgotten younger stepsister of Kristy in the Babysitters’ Club series, Karen always infuriated me. I think she was supposed to be fun, but her formal-speaking, smart-mouthed, calculating self surely has some conniving secrets as an adult. She likely got away from the authorities and is now living under an assumed identity in the tropics.

Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorites, but that doesn’t mean this shining example of a brooding man in literature isn’t basically the worst human ever. I mean, the actual plot of the actual book already has him keeping his wife up in the attic until she wastes away. I’d like to think that Jane eventually realizes this, turns him in, and she and his wife go off on their merry way, traveling the world and living the #vanlife Instagram obsession. Just ignore how the story actually goes. Rochester is the worst, and we all know it.

Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre movie still

Another character who is, in her actual story, basically is already committing these crimes is Goldilocks. She’s definitely in jail for breaking and entering, truly believing she could waltz into the bears’ home and use their resources and consume their food with no repercussions because she was a pretty, white, blonde girl. She was eventually caught after the bear community rallied together and proved how destructive she was to their homes and property, and was probably stopped before it escalated too far (hopefully) into murdering someone for their possessions.

We know there are way too many smart and calculating literary characters out there—who do you think is definitely in jail for murder?

By CASSIE GUTMAN, February 8, 2019, first appearing on BOOK RIOT

Books We Wish We Could Read Again for the First Time

As book lovers and bibliophiles, we’ve all experienced that momentary pang of jealousy when introducing someone to a great novel or book and realizing they’re going to have that singular joy of experiencing it for the first time. While revisiting a beloved tome has its own appeal, discovering a truly amazing story for the first time is exhilarating, surprising, and magical in a way that just can’t be replicated. Whether it’s because of shocking twists, powerful writing, or stunning originality, there’s nothing quite like reading a great book for the first time.


Gone Girl

When a thriller is as deliciously twisted and as intricately woven as Gone Girl, there’s nothing quite like the experience of reading it for the first time. While Dark Places and Sharp Objects (Flynn’s earlier efforts) certainly had their share of surprising twists, there’s just something about the gut punch realization of what is actually going on in Gone Girl. It’s a thriller experience that only comes around once.

Gone Girl Book Cover Picture



Hell’s Angels

If you’ve ever read Hunter S. Thompson, you know there’s nothing quite like the first time you stumble into his raucous, brutally honest, damn-the-torpedoes world. Thompson had an electrifying grasp of the written word — he was a bare-knuckle brawler who careened through language and grammar with gleeful abandon. More importantly, he was a no-holds-barred journalist who dove into subjects with both feet, dissecting the world around with vicious precision. Reading Thompson is a shock to the system that can really only be experienced fully the first time around.

Hell's Angels Book Cover Picture



Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, is at once devastating and breathtaking. The family at its heart is as faulted and fallible as humanness can be. As Ng brings us along through the unfolding of their greatest tragedy, slowly revealing the events that led up to it, you’ll have to remind yourself to exhale.

Everything I Never Told You Book Cover Picture



Perdido Street Station

The first time you pick up a China Mieville book, it becomes immediately clear that you’ve found your way into something entirely new. Mieville’s brand of fiction is difficult to pin down; part horror, a little literary, with speculative sci-fi thrown in, it is wholly and breathtakingly original. Perdido Street Station takes readers through a macabre metropolis beneath the bones of a long-dead beast. I’s populated with humans and monsters of every imaginable stripe. It’s a hallucinatory, steam-punk fever dream — Charles Dickens by way of Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick. And the sheer weight of the originality hits hardest on that first read through.

Perdido Street Station Book Cover Picture




The powerful emotion and sensuality of Ian McEwan’s writing is an extraordinary thing the first time you experience it. For me, Atonement may be the zenith of his considerable skill and while it’s well worth multiple reads, nothing compares to the devastation that comes with working through the novel’s final pages for the first time.

Atonement Book Cover Picture



Cat’s Cradle

There are few writers who can claim to have redefined the art of storytelling. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those select few. Cat’s Cradle is both audaciously irreverent and extraordinarily intelligent.

Cat's Cradle Book Cover Picture




Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, introduces two characters who will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Ifemelu and Obinze part ways in their youth. After falling in love in Nigeria, Ifemelu heads to America while Obinze leaves for London. Their lives could not be more different, but their bond remains. Americanah is a modern love story — and an unputdownable novel.

Americanah Book Cover Picture



The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

While great comedy will always give you a laugh, it’s funniest the first time around. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is wholly original and raucously off-kilter. The first time you read it, the humor comes fast, but rarely from the direction you’d expect, and while there will be plenty of enjoyment during the second, third, and fourth reads, those surprise belly laughs that sprang out of nowhere only come around on that first read.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 25th Anniversary Edition Book Cover Picture



The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s debut novel, 1992’s The Secret History, combines some of our favorite things: psychological suspense, a college campus, and a cast of too-smart-for-their-own-good young adults. It’s the kind of novel you’ll stay up late to finish — wishing all the while that you had the willpower to make it last longer.

The Secret History Book Cover Picture



The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell’s first novel, 1997’s The Sparrow, addressed an oft-written-about subject: First interactions with extraterrestrial life. A linguist priest and his team secretly travel to the planet Rakhat to set up their studies of this alternate civilization, also inadvertently setting the stage for an unearthly sequence of events.

The Sparrow Book Cover Picture





Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push, introduced readers to sixteen-year-old Precious Jones. Told from Precious’s point of view, in her voice, all odds are stacked against her — save for one way out. The experience of reading Push is unlike any other reading experience you’re likely to have, and though it will devastate you, it will also inspire you. It is, truly, a literary work of art.

Push Book Cover Picture

By Keith Rice, August 20, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads


Plenty of novels are good at making you hungry or inspiring you to cook. Sometimes lavish food details are stuffed throughout a book. Other times they contain specific food scenes that are hard to forget. Here are a few strange and remarkable fictional meals.

As befits its name, Oreo is food-obsessed. And one character in this dazzling and madcap satire of race relations is a comically over-the-top gourmet cook. Author Fran Ross devotes five full pages in the middle of the book to a nine-course menu, with six choices for each course. The abundance of dishes and cuisines (plus the assortment of fonts for the menu) is stupefying. For soups, for instance, there are: mtori, stracciatella, New England clam chowder, matzo-ball soup, Hühner Suppe, awase miso, yen-wo-t’ ang, canja, petite marmite, and rassolnik, to be washed down with Amontillado and Madeira.

Menu from Fran Ross' OreoThe effects of this meal resound far beyond the kitchen. “Five people in the neighborhood went insane from the bouquets that wafted to them from Louise’s kitchen. The tongues of two men macerated in the overload from their salivary glands. Three men and a woman had to be chained up by their families when they began gnawing at a quincaillerie of substances that wiser heads have found to be inedible. These substances—which blind chance had put within the compass of snatchability of the unfortunate four—ranged from butterfly nuts to galoshes, with a catalog of intervening items that good taste precludes mention of here.”

As with the rest of Oreo, this meal is delightfully extra.


The parts of A River of Stars set in San Francisco’s Chinatown are chock-full of food. A whimsical idea plants the seed for the main character, undocumented Chinese immigrant Scarlett, to ultimately run a thriving street food business. One Thanksgiving, she and her neighbors combine the offerings from a food bank and their own mishmash resourcefulness to create a unique Chinese American Thanksgiving dinner. “In the kitchen, the turkeys had been hacked in half to fit in the oven, and glazed in honey and vinegar, the crispy skin glittering. The spaghetti was boiled, then stir-fried with the canned vegetables into an enormous pan of chow mein; canned fruit cocktail was ladled upon luminous almond jelly, and the tomato sauce was thinned into a hot and sour soup.”

It’s during this meal that Scarlett invents the hanbaobao. This is a play on a hamburger that is dubbed a Chinese slider. It’s simple but effective: “Neighbors brought out their jarred condiments to add flavor to the turkey: red chili, mouth-numbing peppercorn, black bean, plum, and soy sauces. Scarlett spread plum sauce on an American roll, layered dark meat and sprinkled chopped scallions, and served it to Daisy.”


Am I the only person who read the medieval-esque kids’ fantasy series Redwall more for the meals than for the battles? The feast scenes are gratuitous but charming, making it unsurprising that Redwall spawned a cookbook. (But I’m still a bit disturbed by the image of mice banding together to catch and then consume a fish.)

These banquets are important for setting a scene of convivial, generous peacefulness—a gentleness that’s bound to be fractured by whatever villainous woodland creature is about to intrude. The original Jubilee feast features such delicacies as acorn crunch, devilled barley pearls in acorn purée, and peach and elderberry brandy.


The comic series Flavor could do for crepes what Chocolat did for, well, you know. It’s a candy-colored fantasy about people who take food seriously, though the comic itself is light. Particularly memorable is an early sequence in a grand arena, where a plucky upstart battles a hulking cheftestant in a cooking battle over crêpes suzette. Readers will come away knowing how to make crepes.

Crepes Battle from Flavor Comic


Water Music is endlessly entertaining. It follows a vainglorious Scottish explorer, the real-life Mungo Park, on his quest to chart the course of West Africa’s Niger River around the turn of the 19th century. The book is full of memorable eating scenes, from the trade deals of cannibals to a renowned beauty who eats and eats to maintain her attractive corpulence.

It also contains a recipe for a baked camel. This is a sort of desert turducken, with eggs stuffed into carp, which are stuffed into big birds, which are stuffed into sheep, which are then stuffed into the camel. This recipe is bound to come in handy for most readers.


Serves 400

500 dates
200 plover eggs
20 two-pound carp
4 bustards, cleaned and plucked
2 sheep
1 large camel

Dig trench. Reduce inferno to hot coals, three feet in depth. Separately hard-cook eggs. Scale carp and stuff with shelled eggs and dates. Season bustards and stuff with stuffed carp. Stuff stuffed bustards into sheep and stuffed sheep into camel. Singe camel. Then wrap in leaves of doum palm and bury in pit. Bake two days. Serve with rice.



Chronicling the lives of an Indian diasporic family, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is full of dosas, idlis, and other South Indian dishes. Food oozes out of its pages, and carries many meanings. For one character, it’s a talent and a source of respect: “Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

And as shown by one 13-dish meal, in honor of a family member with cancer, worrying about what to cook and eat is a way to express concern about a loved one, when it’s hard to articulate that in words. Those are some powerful samosas.


But my most noteworthy fictional meal comes not from a novel, but from a short story. The last eating scene in Stephen King’s “Survivor Type,” plus the cumulative effect of all the others, is an image I wish I could shake. Best not to read it over a meal.

By , January 2