A Flowchart of Philosophical Novels: Reading Recommendations from Haruki Murakami to Don DeLillo

Do you want to read a philosophical novel? Sure, we all do. But the question of exactly what kind of philosophical novel you want to read, let alone which individual book, isn’t quite so easily answered. But now a professional has come to the rescue: “Ben Roth, a philosopher who teaches in the Harvard College Writing Program, has put together a kind of flowchart recommending philosophical novels and stories,” reports Daily Nous’ Justin Weinberg. “With categories like ‘about a philosopher,’ ‘by a Ph.D.,’ ‘horror,’ ‘the complications of history,’ and many more, the chart is pretty big.”

The choices you make in navigating it could land you on the work of a writer from one of a variety of countries, one of several eras, and one of a capacious range of definitions of “philosophical.” If you take the word in the sense of a novel’s being about or steeped in the work of a particular philosopher, Roth recommends books like Thomas Bernhard’s Correction (Wittgenstein) and Teju Cole’s Open City (Benjamin and Barthes). Elsewhere on the map he also includes novels written by philosophically credentialed academics like William Gass, Iris Murdoch, and Anuk Arudpragasam.

If you prefer novels where “fiction writers drop into straight essayistic mode,” Roth offers a choice between the easy mode of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the hard mode of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. (If you just wanted to read about a bunch of philosophy students, well, there’s always Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.)

To those who go in for more “novelly novels,” as Geoff Dyer (a known Bernhard enthusiast and author of some pretty philosophical fiction himself) memorably put it, Roth presents more forks in the road: Would you like to read science fiction? Existentialism? Postmodernism? A book free of -isms entirely, or anyway as free as possible?

Your answers to those questions and others could have you reading anything from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (“body horror”) to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (“mid-century French classic”) to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (postmodern, encyclopedic, on addiction). Other choices may lead you to selections less obviously involved with philosophy: J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Of course, you may not want to read a philosophical novel at all: you may want to read philosophical short stories, in which case Roth recommends such form-defining figures as Edgar Allan Poe, writer of “disturbing stories”; Lydia Davis, writer of “short stories” (emphasis his); and Jorge Luis Borges, writer of “awe-inducing stories.”

Borges and quite a few other names on Roth’s philosophical-novel flowchart also appear in critic David Auerbach’s “Inquest on Left-Brained Literature,” a revealing look at the authors read by “engineers with a literary bent.” Both also include Don DeLillo, whose work Auerbach characterizes as making “heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction,” and “simple, visceral, classical themes approached in [a] flashy, novel way.” Roth, for his part, describes DeLillo’s White Noise as his “favorite book ever.” Elsewhere on the flowchart, to the philosophical literature enthusiast who’s read everything he offers “the most underrated philosophical novel of all time,” Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. No, I haven’t heard of it either, but I have to admit that it keeps good company.

via Daily Nous

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Nathaniel Parr says:

    The Tartar Steppe is one of my favorite books of all time, I’ve read it twice and will read again. I read it because it was on Borges’ list. It is a beautiful, strange novel that exists perfectly on two levels, simultaneously a biting satire of militarism as well as an absurdist depiction of life itself.

  • try harder says:

    man man man man man man man Virginia Woolf man man bonus points this one is also a rapist man man man man man man

  • Susan says:

    I would have liked this a lot better if I could actually read the titles of the books.

  • E says:

    I agree with Susan. Could someone just write out the titles in a list rather than subjecting us to this illegible flowchart?

  • Françoise says:

    There is a link within the article (Roth’s philosophical-novelflowchart) which opens a version where all titles are readable.

  • kaveinthran says:

    hi, I am a blind person, and this postcard is a visual list which I can’t read with my screen reader. Can anyone create a readable list either in html or text? thanks

  • Andy says:

    Neither the original nor this fragmentary cut version have legible titles. Good thing that I recognize some of them and they are mostly apt for the trash bin, so nothing valuable was missed.

  • Ed says:

    Kaveintrhan, here is a list. I have not written out the flow chart headings, though. I don’t think I missed any.

    From left to right (at least in some sense):

    Ficciones, Borges
    We Others, Steven Millhauser
    Stories of your Life and Others, Ted Chiang
    Complete Stories, Kafka
    A Collapse of Horses, Brian Evenson
    Complete Tales and Poems, Poe
    The Collected Stories, Lydia Davis
    Inherited Disorders, Adam Sachs
    At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft
    Bartleby, Melville
    Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
    The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Casares

    The Tunnel, William H. Gass
    Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
    The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam
    The Secret History, Donna Tartt
    The Tartar Steppe, Dino Buzzati
    The Opposing Shore, Julien Gracq
    Icefields, Thomas Wharton

    The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
    The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
    Correction, Thomas Bernhard
    The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
    Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

    Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers
    The Discovery of Slowness, Sten Nadolny
    Intuition, Allegra Goodman
    A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
    House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski
    Steps, Jerzy Kosinski
    Crash, J.G. Ballard
    Consumed, David Cronenberg
    Flicker, Theodore Roszak
    The Sea Came in at Midnight, Steve Erickson

    Ice, Anna Kavan
    Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami
    Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
    Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
    The City, The City, China Melville
    Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis
    Notable American Women, Ben Marcus

    The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
    The Children of Men, PD James
    The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

    Never Let me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
    The Red Men, Matthew De Abaitua
    A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller Jr.
    The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
    The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy
    The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke
    The Immoralist, Gide

    The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
    The Wall, Marlen Haushofer
    Nausea, Sartre
    The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir
    The Plague, Camus
    The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
    Stoner, John Williams
    The Outsider, Richard Wright
    My Heart Hemmed In, Marie Ndiaye
    You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik

    Swann’s Way, Proust
    To The Lighthouse, Woolf
    Zeno’s Conscience, Svevo
    Contempt, Alberto Moravia
    The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe
    Remainder, Tom Mccarthy
    The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud
    2666, Roberto Bolano

    The Recognitions, Gaddis
    Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon
    The Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover
    A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava
    Life, a User’s Manual, Georges Perec
    Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
    White Noise, Don DeLillo
    In the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
    Explorers of the New Century, Magnus Mills
    Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee
    The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
    Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

    Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
    Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta
    The Flame Throwers, Rachel Kushner
    The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits
    The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq
    I Hate the Internet, Jarett Kobek
    The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
    The Sellout, Paul Beatty
    Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
    Mating, Norman Rush

  • E says:

    Thank you, Ed!

  • Urania Ombo says:

    @try harder
    I agree, there’s not even one helicopter-gendered neurodivergent POC otherkin on this list. I just can’t believe this. It’s the current year. I. Just. Can’t.

  • John Mullen says:

    Humility cast aside. “The Woman Who Hated Philosophers” Swallow Tail Press 2017.

  • DrGartland says:

    I very much recommend Julia Kristeva’s work. She is said to be the greatest living female philosopher and possibly the greatest living philosopher.

  • kaveinthran says:

    thank you so much

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