"There are things you can't reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier."
-- "Where Does The Temple Begin, Where Does It End?," by Mary Oliver
A growing number of Americans -- young people especially -- are unaffiliated with any organized religion. But that doesn't mean they aren't spiritual. There's always a part of the soul that's yearning for something greater, seeking answers to life's biggest questions: What is sacred? Why are we here? How should we live?
HuffPost Religion has created a book list for these spiritual seekers. Nearly every genre is represented here, from memoirs to mysteries. Some books might introduce you to faiths you've never experienced before. Others will challenge you to think about what it really means to be alive.
Whether you've left your childhood faith, you're just starting to question or you've happily settled into a permanent state of open-mindedness on the subject of God or gods, these are the books for you.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
"The Phantom Tollbooth's message is bracing but benign: it calls on us to rise to the challenge of the world by paying proper attention to its wonder and difficulty. Boredom and depression are far from merely childish demons, not least because an adult has to battle them for so much longer. When [main character] Milo thinks at the book's beginning that 'it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty,' it must strike a chord with every reader, young or old." -- The Guardian
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories, by Marina Keegan
"When Marina Keegan wasn’t tapped to join one of Yale’s secret societies, she gave herself less than two hours to wallow in disappointment, then pledged to spend the time she would have spent 'chatting in a tomb' writing a book. Five days after graduation, Keegan was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod. She was 22.
'The Opposite of Loneliness' is a record of that time better spent. The book of nine short stories and nine essays takes its title from Keegan’s last essay to appear in the Yale Daily News, which went viral in the days after her death when it was read by 1.4 million people in 98 countries. In it Keegan writes with an eerie urgency: 'We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.'" -- The Boston Globe
Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder
"Sophie Amundsen arrives home from school to find two cryptic messages in her mailbox: 'Who are you?' and 'Where does the world come from?' Soon she is receiving lectures in the mail on ancient thought from an unknown correspondent. ... A climactic philosophical garden party becomes the novel's most comic and memorable set piece, inserting into this Norwegian book of virtues, with its homage to the Western intellectual canon and its spirit of common sense, a counterspirit of carnival and sexual anarchy." -- The New York Times
Thirst: Poems, by Mary Oliver
"Throughout the poems in Thirst, Oliver explores her sense of God, her understanding of faith... In 'On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate,' one of her best poems, she offers a riff on the 145th psalm, stepping through the thickets of soul-searching, attempting to locate and believe in belief itself... The poem ends with a colloquy with God: 'O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am / not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.'" -- The Guardian
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed
"What makes a great advice columnist? The Portland writer Cheryl Strayed has proved during her tenure at the website the Rumpus, where she has helmed the Dear Sugar column since 2010, that the only requirement is that you give great advice -- tender, frank, uplifting and unrelenting. Strayed's columns, now collected as 'Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,' advise people on such diverse struggles as miscarriage, infidelity, poverty and addiction, and it's really hard to think of anyone better at the job." -- SFGate
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
"Disguised as a children's book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella The Little Prince offers more wisdom in its very few pages than some authors can hope to produce in a lifetime. The fact that it's been translated into more than 230 languages from the original French is proof that its message resonates worldwide." -- The Huffington Post
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
"Joan Didion's memoir 'The Year of Magical Thinking' is about grieving for her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. ... In her memoir, Didion contemplates how the rituals of daily life are fundamentally altered when her life's companion is taken from her. Her impressions, both sharply observed and utterly reasonable, form a picture of an intelligent woman grappling with her past and future." -- NPR
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
"The charming tale of Santiago, a shepherd boy, who dreams of seeing the world, is compelling in its own right, but gains resonance through the many lessons Santiago learns during his adventures. He journeys from Spain to Morocco in search of worldly success, and eventually to Egypt, where a fateful encounter with an alchemist brings him at last to self-understanding and spiritual enlightenment." -- Publishers Weekly
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
"In 'The Red Tent,' [Diamant] imagined a fuller life for Dinah, daughter of Jacob, whose relationship with the prince Schechem led to a brutal massacre carried out on the royal family by two of her brothers. The 'red tent' is the traditional retreat for menstruating women, and a symbol of their mutual love and support in a world dominated by men... Having given voice to one of the Bible’s silent women, she believes both genders can appreciate the perspective: 'We’ve been reading it from men’s point of view for thousands of years.'" -- The Boston Globe
Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens
"When a consummately articulate, boundlessly bold journalist stricken with stage 4 esophageal cancer reports from the front lines about facing what he calls, among other things, 'hello darkness my old friend,' you sit up and pay attention. Mortality, by virtue of its ultimate unavoidability, raises questions about the very meaning of life, making it as challenging a subject as any tackled by Christopher Hitchens in his brilliant career." -- NPR
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
"This book shows that how small things in life can affect a person's life but there is always a ray of hope sent by the almighty himself. ... A simple story of the complicated Ipe family set in the backdrop of social discrimination, communism and caste system, this book is mainly based on the betrayal and always pops the question into the mind of the reader 'Can we trust anyone? Can we trust ourselves?'" -- The Guardian
Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
"Howard Campbell, Jr., the narrator of 'Mother Night,' is an American writer living in Germany when the Nazis come to power. He is recruited by United States military intelligence to be a spy when World War II begins. As a respected playwright married to a popular German actress, Campbell easily ingratiates himself to the Nazis and offers his services as an anti-semite... The author reminds us that no matter how righteous our cause, no matter how insane and evil our enemy, we must be careful how we act if we want to keep our souls as artists and humans. True in World War II, true in the sixties, true now." -- Mark Lindquist
The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young
"America often gets lampooned as a nation of Jesus freaks, but it's even more a country caught up in the never-ending search for authenticity. Young's too-weird-for-the-pulpit thoughts about how Adam's rib and the female uterus form a 'circle of relationship' have the appeal of knobby heirloom-produce in a world where much religion arrives vacuum-packed. His theories -- how to believe in Adam while supporting particle-physics research; why the Lord is OK with your preference for lewd funk more than staid church music -- accomplish what mainstream faiths tend to fail at: connecting recondite doctrine to the tastes, rhythms, and mores of modern life." -- Slate
The Dude and the Zen Master, by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
"At a party about 15 years ago, Jeff Bridges found himself seated between spiritual leaders Bernie Glassman and Ram Dass, which led to an unexpected conversation about the parallels between The Dude, Bridges' iconic character in 'The Big Lebowski,' and the tenets of Buddhism... That conversation evolved into The Dude and the Zen Master, a book by Bridges and Glassman that captures their dialogue about the nature of spirituality." -- The Huffington Post
How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
"Heti has cited 'The Hills,' the bygone MTV show about young people in Los Angeles, as one of the primary influences on 'How Should a Person Be?'... The novel shares with much reality television a kind of episodic aimlessness, and a focus on young, self-involved characters who spend a lot of time thinking about how they look to other people. In the hands of another novelist, this debt to reality television might lead to a biting indictment of the shallowness of the culture. But that is not what happens here. Heti sees the silliness in the desire for fame that drives such fare, but she also knows that same desire is involved in the impulse to make art." -- The New York Times
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts
"Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls 'a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.' Though strictly nonreligious, the book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address -- the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an 'I' at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be." -- Brain Pickings
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
"Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' is the latest and one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book... Satrapi's book combines political history and memoir, portraying a country's 20th-century upheavals through the story of one family. Her protagonist is Marji, a tough, sassy little Iranian girl, bent on prying from her evasive elders if not truth, at least a credible explanation of the travails they are living through... The book is full of bittersweet drawings of Marji's tête-à-têtes with God, who resembles Marx, 'though Marx's hair was a bit curlier.'" -- The New York Times
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
"The book was a brilliant combination of scientific speculation, sociological treatise and exciting storytelling. It not only gave popular culture the notion of time as a physical dimension; it also offered a parable of class warfare in which two futuristic races, the above-ground Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks, stood in for the working and leisure classes of Wells's time... The novel is a pessimistic look into the future and a downbeat statement about human evolution." -- The New York Times
The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
"[This] last lecture, which Pausch entitled 'Really achieving your childhood dreams,' takes as its theme his youthful ambitions: how he achieved them, and how he helped others to achieve theirs. He doesn't discuss spirituality or religion, but speaks with the simple authority of a man who is looking death in the face and assessing what's really important about life. 'Never lose the childlike wonder,' he advises. 'Show gratitude... Don't complain; just work harder... Never give up.'" -- The Independent
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Long Day's Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neill
“By common consent, Long Day’s Journey into Night
is Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece. ... The helplessness of family love to sustain, let alone heal, the wounds of marriage, of parenthood, and of sonship, have never been so remorselessly and so pathetically portrayed, and with a force of gesture too painful ever to be forgotten by any of us.” -- Harold Bloom, from the foreword to the Yale University Press edition
Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda
"Yogananda is best known for his groundbreaking memoir, 'Autobiography of a Yogi.' It has sold well over four million copies since its publication in 1947, and I suspect it has been read by two or three times that many, because it is the sort of book people lend to their friends. This was especially true in the 1960s and '70s, when Baby Boomer seekers were thirsty for Eastern wisdom and couldn't afford the five bucks to buy the AY, as it has come to be known... The AY prompted more Americans to explore Indian spirituality than any other text." -- Philip Goldberg, The Huffington Post
A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, by Santideva
"This book is a translation of a famous and universally loved poem for daily living composed by the 8th century Buddhist Sage Shantideva. It charts the spiritual journey of a Bodhisattva, one who is committed to attaining full enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. The poem is written from the point of view of a practitioner and provides an extraordinary insight into the process of inner transformation one goes through while traversing the Bodhisattva path." -- Kadampa.org
A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"This volume of sermons. ... is important because here we encounter King the preacher," writes
the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the foreword to this volume. In one of the sermons, "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life," Warnock says that King issued "the clarion call of a spiritual genius and sober-minded sentinel who insists that we pray with our lips and our feet, and work with our heads, hearts, and hands for the beloved community, faithfully pushing against the tide of what he often called 'the triplet evils of racism, materialism and militarism.'" "In a divided world," writes Warnock, "and amid religious and political pronouncements in our public discourse that erroneously divide the self, we still need that message."
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
"The book begins with a lengthy, austere, and deeply moving personal essay about Frankl's imprisonment in Auschwitz and other concentration camps for five years, and his struggle during this time to find reasons to live. The second part of the book, called 'Logotherapy in a Nutshell,' describes the psychotherapeutic method that Frankl pioneered as a result of his experiences in the concentration camps. Freud believed that sexual instincts and urges were the driving force of humanity's life; Frankl, by contrast, believes that man's deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose... 'Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is,' Frankl writes. 'After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.'" -- Amazon review
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown
"Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, is the first to admit that vulnerability makes her uncomfortable, but posits that daring to fail is the only true way to be wholeheartedly engaged in any aspect of life. 'Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice -- the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk and emotional disclosure,' she says." -- Publishers Weekly
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