Born in Zurich in 1969, Alain de Botton has become a prominent figure in the popularization of modern philosophy, celebrated for his accessible, insightful explorations of the human condition. Through books, lectures, and cultural endeavors, Botton delves into complex philosophical concepts with a keen eye for the practical, bridging the gap between timeless wisdom and modern life.
De Botton’s early literary success came with the 1993 publication of Essays in Love, a genre-breaking book that weaves philosophical analysis with personal experience to muse on romantic love. Later works – like How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and The Consolations of Philosophy – continued to examine various aspects of human existence, while encouraging readers to bring more intention to their everyday.
In a 2009 interview with Goodreads, de Botton spoke on the connection between love and literature:
“There are books that speak to us, no less eloquently—but more reliably—than our lovers. They prevent the morose suspicion that we do not fully belong to the human species, that we lie beyond comprehension. Our embarrassments, our sulks, our feelings of guilt, these phenomena may be conveyed on a page in a way that affords us with a sense self-recognition. The author has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling… It explains why literature is such a consolation when love has failed.”
Going on to name his five favorite books for “understanding, appreciating, and surviving love,” de Botton recommended works spanning the centuries – from François de La Rochefoucauld to Roland Barthes. Explore his reading list below, and complement with the bookshelves of Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Singer and Steven Pinker.
Alain de Botton’s Reading List
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“One of the finest novels I have known for unrequited love is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Our hero Werther is an intellectual, sensitive young man living in a small German town. He is also in love with a young woman called Lotte, understandably so, because she’s not only devastatingly beautiful—in a natural, no make-up sort of way—but also has a great sense of humour, sharp intelligence, and good taste in clothes… When, after much pain and a few clumsy lunges, he eventually realises this isn’t on the cards, he buys a pistol and kills himself—a cautionary tale for intellectual, sensitive young men.” -AdB
The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly
“The book is a seductive mixture of diary, commonplace book, essay, travelogue, and memoir—arranged in loose paragraphs, in which Connolly gives us his views on women, religion, death, seduction, infatuation, and literature. The book was written in the wake of the collapse of Connolly’s marriage (his wife ran off with the publisher, George Weidenfeld) and it is the perfect read for anyone who has been left.” -AdB
Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld
“A slim 17th century volume that Voltaire said was the book that had most powerfully shaped the character of the French people, giving them a taste for psychological reflection and precision: La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. Behind almost every one of these maxims, there lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves, particularly of ourselves as romantic lovers. La Rochefoucauld repeatedly reveals the debt that nice behaviour owes to its evil shadow. He shows that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish, and petty—and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness.” -AdB
“Roland Barthes spent much of his career writing about the most ordinary things: washing powder, the Eiffel Tower, falling in love, short- and long-hemmed skirts, photographs of his mother. And yet he brought a classical education and a philosophical mind to bear on these subjects. He knew how to connect Racine and beach holidays, Freud and the anticipation of a lover’s phone call. His work rejected the division between the high and the low, like so many modern artists (Joyce and Beckett, Duchamp and Joseph Cornell), he could see the deeper themes running through supposedly banal things… Barthes’s next-to-last book, A Lover’s Discourse, helped me shape my first book, On Love. The debt wasn’t at the level of ideas; it was a question of style and approach. I loved his forensic analysis of every emotion and his ability to combine heart and head.” -AdB
The Life of Henry Brulard by Stendhal
“Holden Caulfield’s definition of good writers as people who give one an urge to call them up for a chat certainly holds true for Stendhal. He seems like an ideal companion, never more so than in his great unfinished memoir, The Life of Henry Brulard, which is the finest romantic biography ever written… Stendhal is the perfect friend for those who can appreciate a man who describes himself thus: ‘My normal state has been that of an unhappy lover, who loves music and painting deeply. Daydreaming is what I like to do best of all.'” -AdB
(via Goodreads; photo by Mathias Marx)
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