Top 10 Books on Mimetic Theory
My short list for starting the journey into a set of ideas that will change your life.
I believe that a person’s intellectual journey is somewhat path-dependent. There’s a progression of books that I recommend for mimetic theory—but the first one always depends on the person.
I embrace the Thomistic axiom Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipients recipitur (“Whatever is received, is received in the manner of the receiver”).
That’s why I don’t typically recommend I See Satan Fall to those with defense mechanisms in place against Christianity, or Deceit, Desire, & the Novel to those who don’t care about literature. But a Dostoevsky fan? By all means, go straight to Resurrection from the Underground.
I’ve recommended Cynthia L. Haven’s excellent biography hundreds of times as a starting book for people who, like me, care about the person behind the ideas.
So this list isn’t in any real kind of order—though it is in a “rough” sequential order as an imaginative exercise for me in which I teach a year-long seminar in mimetic theory. And I am seriously thinking about it. If you’d be interested in that, please do let me know in the comments.
Here’s my reading list. (None of these are affiliate links, by the way.)
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, René Girard (1961)
Girard was calling it “triangular desire” at this point. The idea of mimetic desire hadn’t been fully developed yet. But that’s why this book is so fascinating. It’s like you’re there at the birth of something big, and you know it.
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, René Girard (1999)
This is one of the most fascinating of all of Girard’s books, written when his theological perspective was becoming mature. He starts off by explaining the 10th commandment in a mind-blowing way. The last two chapters of this book, particularly Chapter 13 (“The Modern Concern for Victims”), is one of the most relevant of all of Girard’s writing for our present moment.
René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Wolfgang Palaver (2013)
I like Palaver’s book because it lays out all of the key concepts in mimetic theory in a systematic way. It’s a nice way to Zoom out and get the lay of the land before diving deeper.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, René Girard (1978)
The magnum opus. A must-read for anyone who wants to go deep. Peter Thiel recommends this book to a lot of people as an intro to Girard. Well, Thiel has really smart friends. I know a lot of people who find this book totally obscure. It’s also a little strange because of the dialogical form that it takes (a conversation between three people). Yet it’s the book that I go back to and drink from the most. There’s gold in it if you’re willing to mine it. And you’re better off mining Things Hidden than Bitcoin.
Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia L. Haven (2018)
Haven’s book is a very solid biography. She calls Girard’s head “totemic, with its dark, deep-set eyes and shock of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair.” I love this book because it rigorously explains the origins of Girard’s ideas—Haven does complete justice to his thought while giving the backstory of the man and the circumstances out of which these ideas were born. This book is reverent. And the reverence seems to be for the truth.
Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, Gil Bailie (1995)
I sat on a park bench with Gil Bailie in Sonoma (where he lives), while doing research and conducting interviews for Wanting. He told me that his friend René Girard could “remove an idol from another person’s eye as if it were an act of reverence.” Bailie wrote a book that is probably the single-greatest model for my own.
Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, Scott R. Garrels, editor (2011)
Mimetic theory could benefit from more scientific engagement, and this book delivers. It is at least a great start. Dr. Andrew Meltzoff’s essay shines.
Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, René Girard (2000)
You won’t get Girard talking about Seinfeld anywhere else. After Things Hidden, this is the book that I return to the second-most. It’s one of the later and most mature works.
Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, René Girard (1989)
Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground has been called the first truly “modern” novel, and Girard interprets it like no other. The idea of the “underground” (of desire) is one of the most relevant and important images for us to grasp, in my opinion. I’ve seen underground mimetic desire destroy marriages and companies and friends with my own eyes. We have important lessons to learn so that it doesn’t happen to us.
Battling to the End: Conversation with Benoit Chantre, René Girard (2009)
Chilling. That’s all I have to say. Read it. The word “apocalypse” simply means an “unveiling” of things to come. This is Girard’s most prophetic work.
But it’s not for me to put it anywhere on this list.
Enjoy the weekend.