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Publisher's Summary

Earphones Award Winner (AudioFile Magazine)

From the best-selling author of How to Live, a spirited account of one of the 20th century's major intellectual movements and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it.

Paris, 1933: Three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called phenomenology. "You see," he says, "if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!"

It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate phenomenology into his own French humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as existentialism.

Featuring not only philosophers but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts, and revolutionaries, At the Existentialist Café follows the existentialists' story from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anticolonialism, feminism, and gay rights. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters - fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships - and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.

©2016 Sarah Bakewell (P)2016 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Polished, witty, often very funny, this stellar production is a rewarding and pleasurable choice. Even more, it proves to be uncannily relevant to the urgent challenges of our current day. " (AudioFile)

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Possibly the best book on Audible

This book has won first place in my Audible library (and I have 2 years worth of it). The ease of the performance and content kept me so engaged that I had to find excuses to keep headphones on. Although I am only relatively new to existential thought, I didn't feel disconnected. The story of the individual lives were so well entwined with their respective philosophies that (as well as intertwined) that I felt like I always took away some new insight. Bravo to the author and performer.

14 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 06-19-16

Consistent look at incoherent philosophy

The author uses biography and the context of the times to explain the development of Existentialism. She mostly stays within the 20th century but does make an exception with Kierkegaard (the father of Existentialism) and details the influence that Phenomenology had on the development of Existentialism.

The author excels when she is describing Philosopher's ideas. In the first half of the book, she probably spent two hours on Heidegger's "Being and Time" and what it meant. She actually did one of the best summaries of the book that I've ever come across. She did it so good, she probably should put a warning label in the book because that might lead the listener to hunt down a copy of the book and read the most abstruse and frustrating book ever written (it's well worth suffering through and I hope this book inspires some people to hunt it down and suffer through it).

I'm more interested in ideas than I am in people's lives. The author really does a good job at explaining the philosophy and putting it into the context of the time period. For me, the book is most fun when she's talking about esoteric fine points of the Philosophy under discussion. During the last 3 hours of the book, she's getting away from the ideas and focus more on the people, and even makes the statement that she thinks "ideas are less important and the life of the philosopher is just as important for discovering their philosophy". She's right, but I still prefer to focus on the ideas not the person. Heidegger was a raging Nazi, but I still like "Being and Time". (It's just a personnel thing and I realize the author in general is probably right).

The author gives a consistent look at what at times can be an incoherent philosophy with its mutually exclusive set of beliefs. I would say, the way the author put the book together this book was much more informative on the philosophy of Existentialism (and Phenomenology) then a Great Course lecture series on Existentialism that I've previously had listened to because the power of story with a narrative ties various aspects of a story together more coherently even when the philosophy can be incoherent.

[Usually I zone out the narrator, but for me Antonia Beamish is perfect for Sarah Blackwell's books. She narrates so well that I instantly think it's the author reading the book herself}

17 of 18 people found this review helpful

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Who knew existentialism could be fun

Would you consider the audio edition of At the Existentialist Café to be better than the print version?

No. Different use. I find quotes in the hard cover, but enjoyed the audio book.

If you could give At the Existentialist Café a new subtitle, what would it be?

Waiter, another round.

Any additional comments?

Well researched and engaging description

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Timely and beautifully written

This fascinating overview of the lives and thinking of the principal modern existentialists is even more relevant now than when it was written. It was heartening to learn that a philosophy that champions freedom and responsibility was forged in the fire of a time when authoritarianism and mass violence threatened to destroy the world as we know it. Inspiring and very enjoyable.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Absorbing and Thoughtful

This philosophical biography definitely leans more heavily towards biography but it seems indispensable for figures who stressed bringing back attention to the experience of life. Does a good job of conveying ideas of many interesting figures.

I particularly liked that it didn't approach each individual philosopher in their own section but continued with the story of the older ones even after they were out of the spotlight.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Easy-to-follow and Intellectually Rewarding

My senior year of high school, I chose to take a class in philosophy and spent the better part of the semester regretting it. When I wasn't slamming my head against the desk, I was hiding under it, fearing my scraggly-bearded teacher would ask me what in the hell a piece of text meant. How I wish I had Sarah Bakewell's book back then. A hugely informative and amazingly clear look at the oftentimes dense concepts contained within the existentialist movement, the beauty of At the Existentialist Café is that it never feels like a cold, purely academic, examination of ideas. Instead, Bakewell situates existentialism amidst the biographies of its progenitors (Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger) and their place in history to construct a narrative that's easy-to-follow and intellectually rewarding.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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The search for authenticity

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

For the quality of the writing and delivery of this history of an idea, yes. Both stand out.

Would you be willing to try another book from Sarah Bakewell? Why or why not?

Her book on Montaigne apparently is more a life-and-times than a critique of his Essays. I'd prefer the latter. She is engaging, but parts of this could not sustain my interest or alertness.

What about Antonia Beamish’s performance did you like?

She pronounces the French names with meticulous care. It's fun to hear her flatten her voice for Americans quoted. She conveys this formidable material as if the ideas just occurred to her, Normally I see she reads romances and genre fiction, but I encourage her to take on more intellectual material. She has a gift of staying erudite while reliably entertaining.

What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

Simone Weil's curious life and self-engineered fate I knew of, but not as much her background as to such as Heidegger. The most interesting tidbit; that Terence Malick began as a philosopher studying that same man, before he channeled his search into film making.

Any additional comments?

More on the afterlife of the characters and their impact beyond the Beats. Sarah Bakewell tries her best to sum this up in a coda. But she does this and judges Sartre vs. Heidegger too. She needed to take more time to explore this. Also, I was surprised at the seeming absence of talk about the divine or the numinous, outside of H's mystic quest. Given some remained believers as well as existentialists (as in Simone Weil, who could have been a memorable character given a larger role) consideration of the varieties of this approach would have broadened its scope. Its depth is apparent, but sections of this left me sleepy.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Can't Recommend this Title Highly Enough

This is perhaps the best book I've "read" in years. The way the author weaves the biographical narratives of these philosophers together with explanations and interpretations of their individual philosophies is masterful! What could have been an unbearably dull book is anything but thanks to the talent of the author. I really felt like I knew these luminaries after reading; something which is rare in my experience of biography. The author is fair in her portrayals of the figures she focuses on, neither overly sympathetic or overly critical, and therefore creates a realistic and relatable cast of characters.

It should be noted that the narrator is beyond excellent. Her accents sound natural and unaffected, while her "narrator voice" is pleasant to listen to on its own. While the book is wonderful on its own terms, it is undoubtedly enhanced by the masterful narration.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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what an amazing introduction to existentialism!

I loved getting to know the major characters of the existentialist generation. I can't wait to dive deeper into this world and learn more!
thank you Sarah Bakewell!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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An excellent introduction to the existentialists

I can't imagine a better introduction to Jean Paul Sartre, his fellow existentialists, and their forerunners.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful