Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This year, I decided to add some categories to my Classics Club list. Though I’m still aiming to read 50 books in 5 years, there are now 80 books on my list from which I can pick and choose. This helps me feel a little less constrained.

One of the categories I added was “Rereads from school,” i.e. books that I first read as a school assignment, but now want to encounter again at a more mature age. Many of these are from a wonderful double-period honors class I took as a senior in high school called “Humanities Block,” which covered many of the canonical works of philosophy, drama, poetry, and fiction, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century.

This had the benefit of introducing me to many great books at a young age, which I would certainly not have picked up on my own, being more drawn to sword-and-sorcery fantasy at the time. On the other hand, it had the drawback of giving me the impression that I had actually read these books, when at age 17 I surely picked up only a fraction of their deep and complex significance. I’ve revisited some over the years, but there others that I feel I really need to give another go.

Our very first book for the class was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the classic work by a concentration camp survivor who founded the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” which he called Logotherapy. You have very likely encountered it as well, as it’s one of the most-read, most-assigned, and most-influential books of all time — and it is well worth reading. In the face of so many forces that seek to degrade and dehumanize us, it’s an important chronicle of one who has truly been through the fire and come out not with despair, but with renewed faith in humanity and the will to heal what is broken in our world.

Frankl was convinced that the fundamental human drive was not for pleasure, nor for power, but for meaning; and his internment in four camps served only to strengthen this belief. Shortly after his release, he published a brief account of some of his experiences and of his resulting observations about the human soul and spirit, which formed the basis for his later therapeutic work. To this was later added a more thorough description of the principles and practices of Logotherapy, and even later a short “postscript” based on a lecture further summarizing Frankl’s world view. The e-book edition I read also adds a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade that includes a biographical sketch of the author.

This collage of contents is valuable for the way it expands and elaborates on Frankl’s life and work, but the heart of the book remains the original seed-text, which in German was called “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” Adding scientific precision to a deep sense of compassion, Frankl vividly describes scenes exemplifying the extreme conditions of camp life, and draws from them observations of how paradoxically the inner core of the human being has the possibility to shine forth in such dark circumstances. That this happens only in a few cases did not matter to him; the radiance of what he observed was so powerful that its reality outweighed all the forces that were trying to hamper and obscure it.

Other than its basic premise, which has always rung true to me, I had almost completely forgotten the specific contents of the book in the 30 years since I last read it. I would not name it as a book that deeply affected me, and yet as I read it for the second time I had a strange, recurrent sense of familiarity. I had met ideas similar to Frankl’s in many places and many ways, and also confirmed them with my own life experience, paltry as it seems in comparison with his. Meeting them again was like coming home to a place I had never really left, as perhaps it must always seem when we find eternal truths in the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I’m glad I read it again, and that I can mull it over more consciously in the years to come. I’ll look forward to doing the same with more of my teenage reading.


23 thoughts on “Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

  1. I actually haven’t come across this book before! But I’m impressed at the spirit of the author, and feel inspired by his philosophy. I’m making note now to seek it out at the library.

    I’ve started to reread books from school too and I know exactly what you mean about that sense of familiarity. It’s interesting to see how differently I view them now though, with more life experience under my belt.


    1. I’m glad that my post interested you in reading this book. It truly is one of the most important books of the twentieth century, and it is even more urgent to heed its message today. There is so much wisdom I encountered in school or earlier in life but did not take in…well, thank goodness for second chances!


    2. I just read this one as well. I was really struck by the moment when they see a sunrise in the sky over Auschwitz and gather to watch.


      1. One of the striking points for me was that when human beings are pressed to the edge of existence, small joys make a huge impact, and beauty becomes as important as food. This makes me want to appreciate such things much more in my daily life; my normal complaints seem much less important.


        1. I agree. On so many levels. I found a similar (though far lighter, and certainly fictional) message in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. You might like that one, eventually, if you’ve never read it. It weirdly put things into perspective for me. ๐Ÿ™‚


          1. I’ve read it many times, and that is a very interesting parallel to make. Though Sara’s suffering and deprivation is of course not as extreme as Frankl’s, she comes to similar conclusions, such as appreciating small moments of beauty, and finding meaning in giving to others.


  2. (Apparently your comment box doesn’t let people comment without putting in a website url. Thought you should know. You may be missing comments from people who have no blog…)


    1. Oops, that would be bad. As an experiments I logged out and am leaving this comment – I have to put my name and email, but website is not required. Did you get a different result?


    2. Ah, never mind! It was a glitch!

      I only posted the above comment to test it once more without a website url. My original comment didn’t take three times without a url, but went through when I added my old blog url. I thought that was the issue but apparently not. Feel free to delete this. Sorry! ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. I few years ago I went back and reread some books that were assigned to me in school that needing rereading or that I never really read. I found it to be a very rewarding experience.

    I have wanted to read Manโ€™s Search for Meaning for a long time. based on your description and upon others that I have heard, it sounds fascinating and right up my ally.


    1. Brian, you will definitely want to read this book. You will find it connects with so many of the themes and concerns of your other reading.


  4. This is such a wonderful book, I think I’ve put it on my hypothetical list of “Books Everyone Should Read.” I was happy to get a chance to re-read it last year, and I’m so glad you got to re-read it too. ๐Ÿ™‚


    1. I would put it on that list too, even though I hesitate to label books that way — readers are so different. But some do seem universally relevant.


  5. First of all, that sounds like an awesome class! My high school didn’t offer anything like that!

    This title is new to me as well and I have added it to my list. Have you read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? It is fiction, but part of my take-away from it was the importance of being able to savor the positive amid the negative.


    1. It was a great class, and I’m so glad I got to take it – even though I wasn’t fully able to appreciate it at the time.

      I think I may have read One Day… but I am not 100% sure. I know we read The Brothers Karamazov and I definitely want to reread that one.


  6. i similarly had more than 50 books on my list to give myself options – I hate having the feeling that my reading is constrained. Have to admit that I have never heard of Manโ€™s Search for Meaning – it’s not figured in any academic program I’ve taken


  7. I, too, read this at a young age—college rather than high school, I think, and because someone recommended it rather than as an assignment. But like you, I’m sure I barely scratched the surface of it, because I lacked the life experience to really grapple with it. Perhaps I should go back and reread it at some point, along with other classics and great books that I either never read, or read too young to really appreciate them.


    1. It’s worth another look, and because it’s brief it’s not a huge time commitment – though the ideas will take a lifetime to ponder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s