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.