Five Best Books on Life’s Eternal Questions

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ken Jennings headlined “Five Best: Books on the Eternal Questions”:

The Brothers Karamazov
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)

1. Almost every eternal question is addressed somewhere in the 360,000 words of “The Brothers Karamazov,” because it is one of those ambitious 19th-century novels, like “Moby-Dick” or “Middlemarch.” These books somehow pack in absolutely everything—all of human experience, even the things that contradict the other things—between their covers. But at the heart of this book is the question of free will, especially in the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. This parable imagines Christ returning to earth, only to be sentenced to execution by the church, which now takes a dim view of the freedom of conscience he preached.

What good, the Inquisitor asks Jesus, is an impossible ideal like free will when people are weak and stupid and starving? The story is told by Ivan Karamazov, the middle of the three brothers, a rationalist intrigued and tormented by the nihilistic belief that without God, “all things are permitted.” Is this free will? Or is his younger brother, Alyosha, correct that true freedom is only possible as part of a life of faith?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
As Told to Alex Haley (1965)

2. Is there a God? What does he want of us? A religious awakening saves Malcolm twice in the pages of his posthumously published autobiography. The first comes in a Massachusetts state prison, where Malcolm Little is such an embittered malcontent, pacing and cursing in solitary confinement, that his fellow inmates call him Satan. The teachings of the Nation of Islam convince him—“like a blinding light,” he tells us—that his life as a cocky street hustler is an affront to God. The second salvation comes on the streets of Mecca during his hajj, when he feels a deep sense of brotherhood with his fellow Muslim pilgrims of all colors.

These are very different epiphanies: The first brings him out of venal selfishness into a life of order and certainty, while the second upends that easy certainty and leaves him at a difficult crossroads. But neither realization alters his deepest moral conviction: that a “racist cancer . . . is malignant in the body of America.” They only change his sense of why that cancer exists, and how he can help to destroy it.

Mrs. Bridge
By Evan S. Connell (1959)

3. The title character, based on the author’s mother, is an affluent lawyer’s wife in 1930s Kansas City, Mo. Short vignettes, some less than a page and many very funny, slowly reveal the contours of her daily life. As the years pass, her mostly absent husband grows distant, her three children grow beyond her. She struggles to fill her days with errands and luncheons, feeling vaguely that she has missed out on something important but lacking the capacity to articulate that doubt, much less act on it.

Many writers have tackled the question of “What is a life well-lived?” but Evan S. Connell’s insight is to place this eternal dilemma within the unique challenges of modernity. How does one live a meaningful life when plagued not by deprivation or suffering but by idleness and comfort? By social status and even the homey virtues of manners and grace? India Bridge, living through tumultuous times at home and abroad, seems to be suffocating to death under the terrible weight of doing absolutely nothing at all.

What It Is
By Lynda Barry (2008)

4. “What is art?” For writers, this eternal question is closely related to its dreaded cousin: “Where do you get your ideas?” “What It Is” is an offshoot of Lynda Barry’s workshop “Writing the Unthinkable,” which relaunched the cartoonist as a nationally acclaimed creativity guru. In a beautiful, bubbling vortex of comics and collage, Ms. Barry encourages readers to not obsess over form or technique, but to recapture the strange, unconscious joy of making something alive to you. From the title onward, she paces patiently around her famously elusive subject (“the formless thing which gives things form”), revealing it only in brief glimpses, with averted vision.

This approach plumbs the mysteries of creativity like no other book before or since. Even the workbook sections are more like Zen koans than traditional writing or drawing exercises. (“When we remember something, do we use our imagination?” she asks. “When we imagine something do we use our memory?”) But Zen Buddhists probably wouldn’t accompany these riddles with doodles of placid monkeys and “magic cephalopods.”

A Short Stay in Hell
By Steven L. Peck (2012)

5. Religious texts going back to ancient Babylon and Egypt have tried to answer the central mystery of life and death: “What is eternity like?” But most have failed to grapple with what is potentially the most salient fact about eternity: that, by definition, it’s really, really long. “A Short Stay in Hell” begins when a man dies of cancer and discovers in the afterlife that, having failed to embrace the one true religion (Zoroastrianism, it turns out), he will be thrust down to hell. But because the protagonist was a bookish sort, his soul is assigned to a near-infinite realm inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s classic story “The Library of Babel.”

The mathematical reality of infinity is revealed to be a yawning existential nightmare as scary as the sewer clown or tentacled Cthulhu in any horror novel. Steven L. Peck, an evolutionary biologist, applies a scientist’s rigor to the rules of this unusual afterlife and pulls off a remarkable trick: a slim novella that can be read in an hour or two, but contains a vastness that will linger in the imagination.

Selected by Ken Jennings, the ‘Jeopardy!’ host and the author, most recently, of ‘100 Places to See After You Die: A Travel Guide to the Afterlife.’

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