I first became aware of the late Joseph Campbell as a result of the interviews that he held with Bill Moyers. These interviews form the structure of The Power of Myth, the popular coffee table book, but the substance came from a lengthy career during which Campbell worked with skill and enthusiasm to understand the common themes in mythology from around the world.
A lot of people will recommend The Power of Myth as the best introduction to Joseph Campbell's work. However, in my opinion, Myths To Live By is superior. Whereas The Power of Myth is muddled with the adoring gushes of Bill Moyers, Myths To Live By is pure Campbell.
Based on a series of lectures made decades ago, the book samples the broad variety of Campbell's ideas about mythology. Campbell was a generalizer, and as such, he did his best work when examining similarities between the ritual elements of different cultures. Sometimes he goes to far, making condescending statements about "primitive" culture or making simplistic distinctions between "East and West". However, it is important for the reader to recognize how far ahead of his times Campbell was. Campbell laid the foundation for the widespread recognition that the traditions of all cultures have some degree of validity and significant meaning.
If Nothing Else, The First Chapter
If I were to recommend just one chapter out of Myths To Live By, it would be the first chapter, which roughly corresponds to the final portion of the Power of Myth interviews. In this chapter, Campbell criticizes the ideas of religious literalists who insist that the tales told as part of their traditions are word-for-word fact. He rightly points out that religion, as a form of mythology, is intended to refer to internal psychological realities, not to establish orthodox beliefs about external reality. Campbell brilliantly compares fundamentalists who take the Bible literally with readers of poetry who interpret metaphors at face value. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
Joseph Campbell was the most significant 20th century scholar of mythology, hands down. Myths To Live By is a great way to get a taste of his ideas, but there's a lot more to explore. In particular, I recommend his classic The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Enjoy his clear explanations, and you just might end up with some new inspirations about the deeper meanings of life.