Reading lists

Long before I became a writer, I was buying far more books than I could afford.

Because the number of book buyers in Australia is so small compared to Britain or the USA, I still buy as many books as I can in “”real”” bookshops to ensure their survival.  Nevertheless, there are temptations on the net, not least of which is Amazon. I like the intricate ways they lead the reader (consumer!) from one book to another. Thoughtful booksellers do this too, of course. But among Amazon’s best features are readers’ lists of recommendations that often lead to unexpected discoveries.

After years of reading and writing books on psychological development, I too have favourites.  Mine is an area where much of the writing is derivative, shallow and ultimately discouraging – so the gems stand out. Few of the books I like most are for absolute beginners. But I would certainly recommend the “”Dummies”” series written by authors who are anything but. Stress Management for Dummies, Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies, Spirituality for Dummies and others in the series are soundly researched, good-humoured and immensely practical.  To that list I would add the classic Norman Vincent Peale’s The Art of Positive Thinking, the more recent Feeling Good by David Burns and a quirky old-timer called The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy. These books show unequivocally how much misery we cause ourselves – and could therefore avoid.  But for readers who want less instruction and more ideas, Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism is helpful, as are the more stimulating books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, including Flow and The Evolving Self. Both writers argue persuasively for greater engagement with life; more attention to process; more creativity and much more co-operation as an antidote to endemic boredom, cynicism and terminal self-involvement.

Countering aggression are two different but equally useful books. Carol Tavris’ excellent Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger. Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, is probably the best-known contemporary Buddhist writer after the Dalai Lama. An earlier book, Peace is Every Step, is a true classic. His work in the West for inner and outer peace began during the Vietnam war. Viktor Frankl’s unforgettable Man’s Search for Meaning was also inspired by appalling circumstances, in his case incarceration in several concentration camps. Like all the great writers in this area, those two wise men demolish false distinctions between “”self-improvement”” and social action and awareness. We improve ourselves by caring more about other people; we care more when we allow our own lives to have depth and meaning.

It is an interesting phenomenon that many useful and substantial psychological books are written by people with an explicit faith commitment. Stephen Covey’s The 7Habits of Highly Effective People and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled lead this category. I am also enthusiastic about Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s How Good Do We Have to Be?, Anthony de Mello’s Awareness, Polly Young-Eisendrath’s The Gifts of Suffering and Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.  Anne Deveson’s Resilience is as intelligent as you would expect. And I like poet Robert Bly’s feisty Sibling Society, a plea to Americans to grow up that could usefully be heard by the rest of us.

Two less well-known books, written by depression survivors keenly aware of the intricate relationship between mind and body, are Catherine Carrigan’s Healing Depression and Ingrid Bacci’s quiet but very practical The Art of Effortless Living.  A totally different take on depression and the experience of self comes in Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, far more wide-ranging than its title might suggest.

Robin Skynner and John Cleese’s Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It are well worth hunting out if you want to know more about “”why”” than “”how””. Skynner was comedian Cleese’s analyst.  Readers benefit. The biology of emotions is brilliantly described by Candace Pert in Molecules of Emotion, and a small revolution was achieved when Daniel Goleman made thinking about our effect on one another respectable by writing Emotional Intelligence. Missing from this list are all the brilliant, more psychoanalytic books. (Another list, another time.) Space and modesty also prevent me elaborating on my own contributions to this boundless field, other than to say that Intimacy & Solitude is the book to read when you are wrestling with either of those two topics, or your sense of self; The Universal Heart is the relationship book for all your connections; Forgiveness & Other Acts of Love brings up to date the great universal spiritual/psychological qualities including courage, tolerance, restraint, generosity and forgiveness; and Choosing Happiness is an encyclopaedic, but intimate approach to all the small moments of intention and action that inevitably create the life we are living.

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