The economist Tyler Cowen describes books that fundamentally change your perspective as “quake books.” These are books that so shake up your mind, and your preexisting understandings, that you can’t view the world the same way after you’ve put them down. 

Below I list three books that aptly fit this description: After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, The Triumph of the Therapeuticby Philip Rieff, and A Secular Ageby Charles Taylor.

What these three books have in common is that they all aim to describe and explain what it means to live in the modern world. They pull back the veil on how we got to this moment in time, unpacking the historical, psychological, and philosophical undercurrents that changed Western society and continue to drive our culture, yet typically go unrecognized. They articulate tensions that many can viscerally sense, but struggle to put into words. They try to answer questions like:

How do modern humans find meaning in a world of declining religious belief and a vanishing sense of transcendence? What are the consequences of living in a culture that lacks a shared moral code?Why does modernity feel so confusing and flat? 

None of these books are easy reads. They are dense and have to be read slowly and deliberately, with your thinking cap screwed on tight. And even then, you’ll probably need to read them twice (or more) to grasp their authors’ arguments. 

But, the effort is worth it.

While all of these books are more descriptive than prescriptive — they explain how and why the modern world is set up and experienced as it is, without offering solutions to its particular quandaries — gaining a greater conceptual and perceptual framework for understanding and navigating this often weird modern world of ours is extremely helpful. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t encounter something in my life that makes me think of one of these books.

“Oh, this Instagram influencer reminds me of something Rieff talked about in TheTriumph of the Therapeutic,” or “Ha! This Twitter debate reminds me of what MacIntyre said in After Virtue.

If you’ve ever felt perplexed by life in the 21st century, I highly recommend picking up a copy of each of these books. Here are some notes on why:

fter Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

If you want to understand why modern society feels so polarized and divided, and our debates over moral, social, and political issues are so intense, all-consuming, and yet ultimately unproductive, read After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. 

In After Virtue, Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that Western societies have lost a sense of a shared telos — an ultimate aim — as well as a shared language to talk about the virtues required to achieve it. Everyone’s moral code is relative, and based on individual, subjective feelings; “This is my truth.”

With neither a common telos nor a common language to discuss what constitutes the good life, moral debate in the modern West has become loud, discordant, and wearyingly unfruitful. As MacIntyre argues, without a shared framework as to what constitutes objective truth, and thus a way to resolve who is right and who is wrong, people simply shout at each other to no real end:

It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. ‘To protest’ and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else. 

But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises

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