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Fifteen must-read classic books on human psychology, and what I’m reading (and writing) next

Posted in Academic Life, Cognitive Psychology and Learning, and Higher Education

The making and execution of summer reading lists is a ritual I’ve slowly come around to appreciating. Summers in academia aren’t a vacation after all, and we read for our jobs just about every day. But the season brings most of us a little extra breathing room in our schedules, and I travel like crazy in the summers, thus building a list of books to look forward to does feel right this time of year.

I love books beyond all reason, and have for as long as I can remember (literally, to my earliest memories as a child). Memoir, nonfiction, even well-crafted textbooks are what move me the most, and if a book is even a little bit good, it becomes part of who I am. This isn’t something you can necessarily tell by looking at my house or my office; I stopped accumulating yards and yards of shelved volumes when e-readers came on the scene, and so only I can see the virtual stacks of what I’ve gotten to read for about the last decade.

Getting to write a book myself was a long-haul, bucket-list dream, and not an easy thing to negotiate given that I’m an academic psychologist; what counts as research for us is journal articles, not books. Now that I’ve done it, I’ve got even more appreciation for the expertise and ferocious level of commitment that goes into drafting a good book, and for the genius that goes into creating a great one.   

A side benefit of the work I do is that it creates opportunities to swap reading recommendations with academics who work in different disciplines, especially recommendations on the best things written by experts for non-experts. When someone with a deep level of experience in a field says that a book is approachable, accurate, and offers some kind of new or original insights – that’s gold.

One of the first things professional-me ever posted publicly was a list called Suggested Reading on Cognitive Psychology for Non-Psychologists.  I have no idea how far this clunky little document has traveled during its lifetime, but it’s been handy for fleshing out replies to the pick-your-brain emails that have trickled in to my inbox over the years, and I can only hope that it’s helped someone, in some way.  I think it’s time to update and repost that list, and I’ve set a goal to get that done this summer.

But apart from that, I’ve been inspired to put together a new list, this time, a collection of my all-time favorite books about psychology, including a number that are especially relevant to teaching and learning but that overall, are for anyone. These are what I consider the greatest hits of the psychology nonfiction genre; some are written by academics in the field and some are not, but what my favorites all share is a combination of sparkling writing and stellar scholarship, with original and surprising perspectives on why human beings think and behave the way we do.

These great psychology books are also, without exception, useful. At their best, these books manage to deliver value without resorting to on-the-nose, do-this-not-that self-help style advice. They do it by sparking insight, by giving you all the pieces then letting you snap together the puzzle yourself. That is what I love about masterful nonfiction, especially masterful nonfiction about psychology –  it becomes something you can appreciate for the pleasure of the read, and in the best case, it helps guide how you live your life, for the rest of your life.

I couldn’t bear to put these in order, so they’re simply alphabetical.

  1. Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions
  2. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
  3. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
  4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
  5. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
  6. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy
  7. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  8. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
  9. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
  10. Stumbling on Happiness
  11. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us
  12. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
  13. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
  14. Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom
  15. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

I’ll spare you my own (long!) lists of books I want to read for fun, although if you’d like to connect on Goodreads, let’s do. Most of what you’ll see there reflects my lifelong passion for substantive, graceful, useful nonfiction on almost any subject. There’s so much to love in that realm and it just keeps coming and coming – science, essays, self-help and how-to. Rarer are truly good new works in my other favorite genre, memoir, but I keep an eye out for those, and there is one on my personal list – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band – that I’ll probably get to sometime this summer.

Besides the books I want to read for pleasure, I also run parallel reading lists for books I want to take a look at for work. I think it’s an exciting lineup: Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. Managing Your Professional Identity Online: A Guide for Faculty, Staff, and Administrators (which I just started, and it’s delightful). The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking. Transparent Design in Higher Education Teaching and Leadership. Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Teaching with Compassion: An Educator’s Oath to Teach from the Heart.

There’s a last one on my to-read list that is particularly special to me because it’s authored by my dissertation advisor and graduate mentor, Donald MacKay. The book is called Remembering: What 50 Years of Research with Famous Amnesia Patient H.M. Can Teach Us about Memory and How It Works. It tells the story of his research with Henry Molaison, whose intensely-discussed case of surgically induced amnesia is cited in nearly every textbook on memory, and continues to inform MacKay’s scholarly perspective on mind and brain even today.

That work will hopefully help inspire me as I begin my own next book project, which just became official this week. It’s about memory as well, but from a perspective that has to do with teaching and learning as well as thriving in a technologically-saturated world. I’ll be focusing on the positive as well as negative influences that technology has on memory, and on how the nature of memory itself might be changing now that ubiquitous digital mechanisms for recording, sharing, and searching information are inseparable from our day-to-day processing of information.

I think that the topic is timely, and it’s one I’ve been working on for a while as part of my Technology, Mind, and Brain seminar at NAU. Maybe, if I do a good enough job on it, it will end up on somebody’s top-ten (or fifteen, or who knows, top-five) list someday. That’s inspiration too, but for now, I’ll see what I can glean from the authors that I admire, reverse-engineer some of the best approaches to writing about psychology that I’ve seen, and in the end, create the kind of book that I’d love to read myself.

What do you think of the list of fifteen? Are there any that I’ve missed? Want to know more about the books I picked and why I picked them? Let me know on Twitter.