Top ten (actual) psychology books

Books are some of my favorite things, they are all the most polished ideas the person can put together which is really great on its own, but it also has the added benefit of that you can close them when they stop making sense.  😀

Especially if one reads the ones that last through time, there is really an extraordinary amount to learn. Koffka’s Principles of Gestalt Psychology essentially is an outline of all the work that is actually being done now, except that it was done in the 1930s.

The allure of the psychology book is not only in the text its self, but in the people who might have owned the book before you. For instance, my copies of the books below has been owned by several very good psychologists whom I respect greatly (and whose signature and notes on the book greatly enhance both its informativeness and I believe its market value!).

Without further ado, we get to the actual books:

  1. Walden 2 – B. F. Skinner. This book essentially covers Skinner’s ideas about psychology and what it could do for humanity, creating a more efficient and enjoyable life. Above all this, it is  written within the context of a story and is thus accessible for anyone. In my opinion it could be given to any one and should be a required reading for basically every Psychology major.
  2. The collected writings of Friedrich Nietzsche – F. W. Nietzsche. This is a man who will be talked about in 1000 or 2000 years. He questions everything, and does a great job doing it. He gets a bad rap, but this is one of the most original and thoughtful men I have ever read. Check out my favorite page of Nietzsche.
  3. Crime and Punishment – F. M. Dostoyevsky. Anything by him is great, but some of it is really quite long. Crime and Punishment though is not. The story is of a man who struggles with many ethical questions revolving around the right to kill another person for the greater good. It is filled with many ethical questions and dilemmas from different angles, for instance, the drunk who drinks because he knows he has let down his family. A thoroughly entertaining book. Also check out his ‘the idiot’ which is essentially my ideal.
  4. Being and Time – M. Heidegger. This is potentially the toughest, but also the most rewarding book on the list. Heidegger explores the question of what it means to be human, and in the process of doing so, outlines essentially everything in modern psychology. One of my favorite ideas of his is ‘the they’ which is essentially the inauthentic life, the one which does things because that is the way they are done, rather than because that is the way they want to do them. People just say it is tough because he essentially creates a new language to talk about these things.
  5. Principles of Gestalt Psychology – K. Koffka. This is just a great reference book and something to look back on. It is a general textbook that traces a small set of basic principles (e.g., the gestalt) from the most basic of psychological questions (how do we tell objects from the background?) to emotions, memory, and personality. This is a great book just to browse sometimes (make sure to read the first and last chapters for an overview!), and you will Very often go to a conference and see a poster or talk that basically redoes the research that they did back in the early 1900s. It is a really great bit to just have around.
  6. General Systems Theory – L. von Bertalanffy. This is really a great one, that is not just about psychology, but about all of the systems in the universe, and what they have in common. Bertalanffy puts together a large number of consistencies across the entire range, from the single cell, to the human, to the society. It is a great read for those who see that psychological principles can be applied across many levels.
  7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – L. Tolstoy. This is a bit similar to Heidegger in that it challenges the individual to live the authentic life. It is short and sweet and so awesome. It follows a ‘successful’ and well respected judge through the final days of his dying with something that might today be called lung cancer. He writhes in agony and looks back on his life as having done all the ‘right’ things, but not enjoying them and never really living for himself. If you want someone to realize their potential in life, just pass them this book. 
  8. A theory of Cognitive Dissonance – L. Festinger. Leo Festinger put forward probably the most important theory in the most unimportant way possible. He articulates the essence of Heidegger in a way normal people can understand. We have a desire for cognitive consistency and when the world presents us with some information that contradicts this, we experience dissonance, which then motivates us to reduce this. He shows how it applies across a large number of situations.
  9. Civilization and its Discontents – S. Freud. this is another short one, where Freud essentially talks about the tension between the individual and the society. Tracing from the influence of the alpha male in the tribe to the governments and religions that decide our way of life, he suggests that as control becomes better in general, the person is less and less free to do as they choose. It is just packed and tight, which I really like.
  10. Collected writings of William James – W. James. This is another general textbook like reference from one of the most influential psychologists of his time.  One of the first American Psychologists, his ideas and writings were the basis of what most psychology students would learn for much to come. He was among the first to suggest the stream of consciousness, and his writing style is second to none, having written something like an average of 20 pages per day over his entire life. He would later become a philosopher and then even a religious thinker toward the end of his career.


So that’s ten, but honestly there are wayyyy too many to go on this list. Other great ones are, for instance, Games People Play by E. Byrne which is a great little book for anyone you know, only about 100 pages. Also the Tao Te Ching  by Laozi is a really nice introduction to eastern philosophy and just how to get and exist on the path. Finally, The Naked Ape by D. Morris is a zoologist’s look at psychology and human behavior; there is so much interesting here, and you can read more about it here.

One book that I was really surprised by how bad it was was Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (it is in my library though).  This sold like a million copies and was all the rage when it first came out, but I read about the first third of it (so about the first 200 pages) and did not feel that I had really learned anything at all. Until then it was mostly just anecdotal stories about people he knew, their dreams, and how they connected. Maybe I should have skipped toward the end, but there was a major lack of actual evidence (and thus science) or even just ideas here for me (like Civilizations).


What are your favorites? There are surely ones I missed and probably don’t even know about! 😀


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