I have often been asked to recommend books –psychology and novels and others — which I like or have found helpful on my life journey. So I compiled a list, albeit an incomplete one, and a little explanation of why I found value in these books. Also, I just want to add that I don’t necessarily agree with the entire philosophy or attitude expressed in all of these books. Sometimes I strongly disagree with some of the things expressed — but still find the books valuable for various reasons. Meanwhile, if you feel so inspired, feel free to post your own book recommendations in the comment section below!
The Drama of the Gifted Child (by Alice Miller): Alice Miller, arguably one of the best published psychology writer to date, opens “The Drama of the Gifted Child” with this classic, timeless pearl: “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.” An awesome book — its main flaw being that Alice Miller herself was deeply unconscious in so many ways, right to the end. But still a key psychology book — and a classic.
For Your Own Good (by Alice Miller): This is the book in which Alice Miller explicates the monster known as Adolf Hitler (by analyzing the traumas he experienced in his childhood) and thereby disproves that human behavior can be innately evil. And although Alice Miller had a lot of personal shortcomings herself, this book, and especially the chapter on Hitler, is a must-read. Hats of to her!
Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (by Alice Miller): Thou Shalt Not Be Aware is one of the finest theoretical books demonstrating how parents betray their children and how devastating this is for the child. Its weakness is that Alice Miller doesn’t apply this knowledge to herself (which all came out after her death with her son’s exposé of her), but even in spite of that this is one of the best psychology books out there.
Trauma and Recovery (by Judith Herman): This book is brilliant – one of the best out there on trauma. I read it in my first year as a therapist, when I was working with Vietnam combat vets. And it helped me! And I also realized what the author was writing about applied to me too — and ultimately to everyone. Its only flaw is that it doesn’t recognize that trauma is a lot more widespread than the author acknowledges. But still a fantastic book.
Siddhartha (by Hermann Hesse). This book profoundly affected me when I first read it in my early 20s. It’s the story of a young, gifted man from a “good family” who leaves it all behind to follow his own inner path and go on a journey of his own: into himself, into the world, into mistakes, and into more self-understanding. Not that I agree with all the messages of this story, but I still think it’s a great book, and I’ve read it several times.
Of Such Small Differences (by Joanne Greenberg). This is the story of a romance between a deaf-blind man and a hearing-sighted woman. It offers a deep and profound and often painful look – and whole-body experience – into a world to which so few have access. This book is an absolute knockout, and if all books were this good I’d probably just pull back from the world and spend all my time reading!
In This Sign (by Joanne Greenberg): This is the best portrayal of Deafness that I know. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a saga about life, about radical cultural misunderstanding and difference, and about the struggle to build hope and stability in an alienating, uncaring world. And although the subject matter is Deafness, I found Deafness here to be a metaphor that applies to all of us who feel different, and particularly those of us who feel marginalized or stigmatized by our difference.
Goodbye Mr. Chips (by James Hilton): Overall a wonderful book — the story of a lovable British schoolteacher of Latin in the early part of the 20th century — seamlessly and magically written and with phenomenal attention to detail.. The author wrote it in a single passionate week, and it reads that way. All said, though, there are a few flaws I consider: it’s something of a homage to mediocrity (the mediocrity that is killing our planet). And I disliked the occasional rationalization of abusive behavior toward children (i.e. constantly humoring of “thrashing” kids). Nevertheless, a great book.
Roots (by Alex Haley): The classic story of teenage Kunta Kinte being stolen from The Gambia by slave catchers in 1767 and brought to America. I love Roots and think the whole world should read it. It’s an important and vital book about American history, family history, and triumph over hardship. I loved Roots the first time I read it more than thirty years ago, and I love it still. If only Alex Haley hadn’t plagiarized parts of it, and called some of the fictional parts nonfiction. But still a fantastic book, especially about the first 60%. Absolutely worth reading — and it inspired me to travel to The Gambia! (Meanwhile, like the previous book, this book does minimize the effects of child abuse — “thrashing” children and the like.)
All Quiet on the Western Front (by Erich Maria Remarque): This World War One novel told from the German side has been called the great war book of all time, and I cannot disagree — though it could just as easily be called the greatest anti-war book of all time. It’s also a story of perseverance, friendship, survival, strength, beauty, sadness, loss, trauma (a truly great book on trauma) — and of course the utter absurdity of war.
The Education of Little Tree (by Forrest Carter). An absolutely great and touching novel about a young part-Cherokee boy growing up in the 1930s in the backwoods of North Carolina with his Cherokee grandparents. Although this book’s author has a very screwed up history and was a rotten person in a lot of ways, I still recommend his book (and have written about this on my website). Meanwhile, if you do choose to read this book I would recommend reading the book first and afterward hunting reading online about the author. That’s at least what I did and it worked for me.
Uncommon Therapy (by Jay Haley). I found this to be the best book on Milton Erickson, who is one of the world’s more unusual psychotherapists (and many say the father of modern hypnotherapy). Although I’m not a practitioner of Erickson’s style of therapy, and have some strong criticisms of him (and his style), I found book superb, and I learned a lot from it.
The Godfather (by Mario Puzo): I debated putting this book on my list, because of the heavy violence and at-times perverse sexuality. Not a book for kids, for sure. Also, this book’s main character is someone who could or would likely be denoted a sociopath, however, it’s still an absolute classic of American literature and a fast and interesting read — and a great study in the destructive effects of power. And also, if the Godfather is a sociopath, this book makes it pretty clear why he became that way — childhood trauma!
The Hobbit (by J.R.R. Tolkien): One of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve read it over and over. The story of a frightened and conservative little fellow (Bilbo Baggins) who gets called upon to go on the adventure of a lifetime — and, despite his internal resistance, says yes! (And if you can get the version with Tolkien’s illustrations, then I think that’s the best one — his illustrations are magical!)
Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley): This is probably the greatest dystopian novel ever. What affected me most of all while reading it was absorbing the realization that the dystopia Huxley creates on paper is so incredibly parallel to the world we live in now: a world of comfort-seeking, sex-seeking, medicated, thrill-seeking blindness, where truth takes a profound backseat to following the herd and keeping in line at all costs. I also found it profound that this book gave me an opportunity to self-reflect the ways in which I compromise truth in order to follow the herd. It’s so hard to be different from one’s peers and to forge a new way. The pressure to conform is massive. But, as Brave New World makes clear, conformity is sick. Hard to believe this book was written in 1932: it seems like it was written yesterday!
Never Cry Wolf (by Farley Mowat): A wonderful book of humans and nature, set in the north of Canada and written by a top (and some say “the” top) Canadian author. I’ve read it multiple times and have always loved it. I believe it was originally presented as nonfiction, and apparently that’s not quite true, but it’s a superb book anyway.
My Side of the Mountain (by Jean Craighead George): The story of a 14-year-old boy who leaves his life and family behind to go off into the mountains in Upstate New York and life on his own in nature. I first read this book when I was a pre-teen, and it inspired me — and perhaps helped lead me on the path that I’m still on today. A simply lovely book — with great illustrations too.
The Black Stallion (by Walter Farley, 1941): The story of a boy in, I believe, the 1930s, who gets stranded on an uninhabited island with an Arabian stallion, who becomes his great friend. A lovely adventure that I first read when I was seven years old — and then reread decades later, only to find that it still stands the test of time! A classic underdog-rises-above tale, and who can’t love that?
Love at Goon Park (by Deborah Blum): Nonfictional story of psychologist Harry Harlow and his experiments on psychological attachment in monkeys. A painful read (basically experiments on torturing monkeys), but provides a lot of insight into human attachment and the roots of human trauma, and also insight into the general stupidity of the larger psychology field.
The Catcher in the Rye (by J.D. Salinger): I can’t help but love Holden Caulfield, the now-famous protagonist of this great novel, despite all his depression and misery and angst. I don’t know if you’d call it a criticism, but everything about Holden is pre-conscious, yearning to get real and honest and become true to himself, but at the same time so lost and blocked. And while the book isn’t exactly redemptive, I still find it a spectacularly lovely and truthful story.
White Fang (by Jack London): A wonderful adventure tale about a wolf-dog and a man, and I suspect a metaphor for the author’s inner life.
Of Mice and Men (by John Steinbeck): I first read this in my early 20s — and have read it again and again. A book of friendship, adventure, ethics, sadness, justice, and truth — all set in California in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Perhaps the best book by John Steinbeck (who won a Nobel Prize for his literature).
The Grapes of Wrath (by John Steinbeck): Wonderful tale of a painful time and place in American history — the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl. Fantastic characters and local color. Some filler chapters (extraneous to the plot), but still a fantastic book. And the character Preacher Casy was for a long time one of my favorite characters in all of literature.
Watership Down (by Richard Adams, 1972): Superb story, interesting characters, largely fast flowing plot, and a 70% good metaphor: the metaphor of breaking from the herd, breaking from the old way, treating life as an adventure to be tackled, and taking risk and using ingenuity to accomplish a mission.
Rise Up Singing (by Peter and Annie Blood): I’ve owned or seen hundreds of song books, and two are the most precious to me: “The Fireside Book Of Folk Songs” (published in 1947) and this on. “Rise Up Singing” is brilliant for these four reasons: 1) Topnotch choice of songs. 2) Great method of presenting chords (I learned how to play chord progressions on guitar from this book). 3) Excellent illustrations. 4) Each song is WELL referenced. I have gained so much from this book over the years, on so many levels, that I could not leave it off this list.
Helen Keller: A Life (by Dorothy Herrmann): This is the definitive biography of a deaf-blind woman who was not just an American hero, but a human icon. A fascinating tale that I found much better (though sadder) than Helen Keller’s autobiography (“The Story of My Life”), which was much more censored and sugar-coated. It is very well researched, clearly and carefully written, often insightful, and doesn’t shy away from such taboo topics as sexuality, alcoholism, child abuse, and the disturbing relationship between Helena and her teacher-guardian Annie Sullivan.
Papillon (by Henri Charriere): One of my favorite adventure stories. Originally presented as nonfiction (though it seems to have been at least largely fictional), it is an absolutely riveting tale from beginning to end. It is about an imprisoned man whose only thoughts were on escape — which he did again and again, at incredible personal risk. Beautiful and fascinating — and inspiring. And yes, while he is macho, perhaps to a fault, there is a gentle side of him too.
Things Fall Apart (by Chinua Achebe): The story of a remote Nigerian village in its deeply painful transition toward Christianity. This is prime modern African literature, and I cannot recommend it enough. I cried while reading it. And as a perk from reading this book, I learned that anytime I’ve met someone from Nigeria I have a ready-made conversation. They all know the book, love Chinua Achebe, and love to talk about it. And since I do too, everyone wins.
Wild Swans (by Jung Chang): An stunning nonfiction tale of three generations of women in China, their hardships and triumphs — all told in the backdrop of China’s wild history from the early to late-20th century. I loved it, and it opened many windows for me into life in historical China. And I actually read it for the first time when I was first in China, in 1994. Another traveler gave it to me and I gobbled it up — then passed it along when I’d finished it.
Maus and Maus II (by Art Spiegelman): These two books are absolute classics on the Holocaust and its post-traumatic effects on the family system — written in cartoon form, from the perspective of a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, with each nationality represented by a different animal. Usually I’m not a fan of cartoon books, but these worked from me — and opened my eyes to what cartoon books can do for the imagination. Great narrative, great characters, beautifully insightful and alive — both great reads.
The Norton Book of Modern War (by Paul Fussell): From World War I to the Spanish Civil War to WWII to Korea to Vietnam, an amazing selection of writings of people’s experiences in war. If there’s any book that’s going to make you anti-war (well, this and All Quiet on the Western Front) here’s your book. Absolutely important, though disturbing.
Lord of the Flies (by William Golding): This novel is about a group of boys who get stranded on a fictional island in what seems to be the Mediterranean for several months during World War Two. It’s all rational and organized at first, and then goes quickly downhill from there. It’s a story of what happens when children with unresolved trauma have free rein to do whatever they want. However, I really think this story is a metaphor (unconsciously so on the author’s part) for the reality of what actually does happen in so many family systems, with the wounded inner child of the parents in charge and no one to step in and stop them from acting out on their children.
Sybil (by Flora Rheta Schreiber): This is the first book I ever read on that thing called Multiple Personality Disorder (also known as Dissociative Identity Disorder), and I think it’s the best. Although it isn’t exactly nonfiction as presented (and my later readings on the therapist showed she had some significant boundary issues of her own), the book is brilliant nonetheless. It’s the story of Sybil, a girl with a horribly abusive childhood who spends a fair chunk of her adult life trying to recover from it with the help of a dedicated therapist. Yet it also shows how amazingly creative Sybil as a child had to be, unconsciously, to avoid becoming absolutely crazy. Also, Sybil’s mother is probably the ultimate evil mother in literature — and a clear example of how a vile, perverse parent can shatter a child’s psyche.
A Day No Pigs Would Die (by Robert Newton Peck): The short tale tells of a boy, his father, and a pet pig in Vermont in the 1920s. It struck me that this book had been percolating in the author’s mind for around five decades, and clearly burst out when ripe. I was drawn to the book by its rather odd title, and I was hooked by page one — and cannot recommend it enough! The writing is beautiful, interweaving fine modern prose with dialogue in odd but readable post-World War One Vermont farmer and Shaker dialects. And the main character is a juxtaposition himself, a boy on the cusp of adolescent and on the cusp of leaving behind obsolete Shaker ways. Truly a great novel.
Hiroshima (by John Hersey): This book lays on the line the horror of what the atomic bomb was like from the perspective of several different residents of Hiroshima who were there on August 6, 1945. Although the book is dry, it’s a clear, well-written account of that horrible day, and if there’s any book that’s going to make you against nuclear weapons this is it.
Nilda (by Nicholasa Mohr): A powerful coming-of-age young adult novel of a poor New York-born Puerto Rican girl, Nilda, hitting her adolescence during World War 2. It is a tale of love, pain, fear, discrimination, poverty, abuse, narrow-minded immigrants, relationship problems, puberty, low-level depression, and desire for upward mobility — yet none of it told in the sensational or overly dramatic way of so many young adult books. It’s simple, to the point, and discreet, and reminds me of that statement some famous movie director said, I believe, about Alfred Hitchcock, which I will paraphrase: “He showed us more with a closed door than most directors do with an open zipper.” P.S. I would also recommend Nicholasa Mohr’s “El Bronx Remembered” — another great book!
Breaking From Your Parents (by Daniel Mackler): Although it feels a bit weird to put a book of my own in here, I felt this book of mine is unique enough to warrant some of my own positive feedback. I would have loved this book when I was younger and striving to become independent from my confusing, often boundariless, and at times traumatizing family of origin, but since it didn’t exist, and there were no books I found that even remotely satisfied what I was seeking, I wrote it myself, and I think it serves its purpose.
From Trauma to Enlightenment (by Daniel Mackler and Frederick Timm): I put in one more book of mine, this one co-written with my friend and fellow therapist, Frederick Timm. This guide to self-therapy — presented in 12 steps — follows the path of self-healing that both Frederick and I have taken, and are still taking. I put this book on this list because I feel it is succinct, powerful, and unique — and accurate. There are also strong sections on tools for self-therapy and other methods for self-help.
My Life (by Leon Trotsky): Love or hate Communism, Bolshevism, and the Soviet Union (my feelings happen to lean toward the negatives), this is one of the most gripping and unusual autobiographies I have ever read. Leon Trotsky is an intellectual, world traveler, army general, political leader, brilliant speaker, social commentator, social theorist, polyglot, prolific writer, and 20th century icon, and his book about his life (minus the last 11 years) is unforgettable.
The Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank): I consider this book, written by a teenage Dutch Jewish girl trapped with her family in an attic in Amsterdam during World War Two, to be one of the finest books ever — and one of my favorites. It’s a story of adversity against enormous odds, conflict in the family system, love and beauty, frustration, terror, and ultimately hope. If I ever were to write a book this powerful I would feel my life was complete!
A few other worthy books about mental health:
Toxic Psychiatry (by Peter Breggin).
Anatomy of an Epidemic (by Robert Whitaker).
And a few other great novels:
The Great Brain series (by John D. Fitzgerald).
The Little House on the Prairie series (by Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Tuck Everlasting (by Natalie Babbitt).