The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch (Routledge, $20). In this trio of lectures, Murdoch says that to see the world clearly is a rare moral accomplishment, because it requires us to break free of our self-absorbed fantasies. This is what good art does: It shows us the world as seen by someone with unclouded vision.
The Present Age by Søren Kierkegaard (Harper Perennial, $11). This is Kierkegaard's essay about mass media, written a century and a half ago. He says we have come to view ourselves as representatives of a generic category, "the public," which makes us become third parties to ourselves. The result is a "colorless cohesion" of autonomous, interchangeable individuals.
The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi (Univ. of Chicago, $16). Polanyi, a Hungarian philosopher, analyzed the experience of a blind man using a cane to consider how our tools shape our attention once they've become unobtrusive extensions of the human body. This has far-reaching consequences for how we understand the role of the body in cognition, and for design.
The Early Stories: 1953–1975 by John Updike (Random House, $20). These stories gloriously confirm Murdoch's point about good art. The small moments in a life unfold, and we see more clearly what it is like to be a human being.
The Weariness of the Self by Alain Ehrenberg (McGill-Queens, $30). Ehrenberg offers a cultural history of depression, saying it has replaced guilt as our defining psychic affliction. The question that hovers over your character in our "culture of performance" is not how virtuous you are but how capable. Depression is the weary sense of inadequacy that comes with the vague and unending mandate to become one's fullest self.
Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll (Princeton, $25). Why do people park themselves at slot machines for eight-hour stretches? Not to win money, but to get "in the zone," a state of repetitive absorption where the frustrations of life beyond the screen fall away. Vegas has long been honing the dark arts of screen-based behaviorist conditioning, but the business model has wider appeal.
—Matthew B. Crawford is a political philosopher, a mechanic, and the author of the 2009 best-seller Shop Class as Soulcraft. His new book, The World Beyond Your Head, offers a remedy for our distraction-filled lives by tracing the malady back to Descartes.