Belief and Beyond Belief: Meaning | Recommended Reading

With the launch of Meaning, the first part of our Belief and Beyond Belief festival with Southbank Centre, we’ve been discussing our favourite books that we think best deal with themes of life and meaning. Settle down somewhere cosy and join us in pondering deep questions over one of our recommended reads ...


Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
– The first of seven autobiographical books, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings charts her early childhood in 1930s America. Facing discrimination and poverty, she nevertheless tells her life story with grace, wit, humour and hope. Filled with nuggets of wisdom, reading this book will teach you a thing or two about life.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) –
The trials and tribulations of Tess are supposedly one basis of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.9, which we’re performing on 25 January. 

John Fowles, The Magus (1965) –
A man goes to a Greek Island to find meaning in his life, only to be confronted by a mysterious gentleman who makes it all much more confusing ...

Anon. (trans. Simon Armitage), Pearl (2016)
 – A grieving man’s faith in God is tested and re-affirmed by an out-of-body experience that transports him to the banks of Paradise and face-to-face with the object of his heartbreak, in this beautiful recent translation of an anonymous 14th-century Middle English poem.

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Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark
 (1796) – Part travelogue, part memoir, part political treatise, Wollstonecraft’s last published work is drawn from letters and journal entries written while touring Scandinavia conducting business for a former lover.  Wollstonecraft addresses the practical politics of prison reform and female education alongside a philosophical exploration of the relationship of self with society and nature, and the nature of love and loss.

John Williams, Stoner 
(1965) – Telling the life story of ordinary university English professor William Stoner, Williams reveals the value of an unfulfilled life seemingly defined by failure.

Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things (2013) 
– A collection of real letters sent to then-anonymous internet agony aunt Cheryl Strayed, and her beautifully written responses. Hilarious, deeply moving, and genuinely helpful.

William Godwin,
Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) – Caleb Williams seeks to uncover the truth about an old murder for which his employer was accused. Written in the wake of the French Revolution, Godwin’s story of false accusations and imprisonments explores what is what it is to be innocent or guilty, and challenges prevailing assumptions around justice, virtue and faith. If you like the sound of this, be sure to join us for Beethoven's Fidelio on 21 January!

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006) 
– At once incredibly bleak and oddly cathartic, The Road forces the reader to consider what would be worth living and fighting for if everything we take for granted was taken away.

Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1983)
 – The story of a woman’s journey to finding self-worth in the face of enormous adversity, this powerful novel tackles issues of faith, identity, women’s rights, and racism in 1930’s America.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life 
(2015) – A heartbreakingly beautiful tale of four friends making their lives in New York. The story centres on Jude, an extraordinarily complex character whose childhood adversity defines his life for good and for bad. A powerful story of male friendship.


What books, pieces of music, or other works of art do you think best deal with themes of life and meaning, or have had a particular impact on you and how you find meaning in the world? We would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations! 

You can find out more about our Meaning concerts and book tickets here