Saturday, May 22, 2010

Recommended Reading

A post at Shrink Rap invites suggestions for recommended reading on psychiatric topics, prompting me to chime in with my top ten. These are not "recommended" per se; these are the books, some read before I became a psychiatrist and some read after, that struck or influenced me most deeply. This sort of list can only relate to the sort of person I was to begin with; other people might read these ten and be disappointedly unfazed, but I can't help believing they are noteworthy in their own ways. In no particular order:

1. "Civilization and its Discontents," encountered in undergrad, was my first experience of Freud, and still the most memorable. He unforgettably explained how the basic human dilemma is not so much intrapsychic as social and interpersonal. As Sartre infamously put it, "Hell is other people," although fortunately it's not so simple.

2. The Birth of Neurosis, by George Frederick Drinka, impressed me with the cultural contingency of hysteria and psychological symptoms in general.

3. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, by A. Alvarez, used the case study of Sylvia Plath as a springboard to an existential and phenomenological consideration of the suicidal mindset.

4. Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer, raised fascinating and vexing questions about the relation of diagnosis to medication.

5. The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas Szasz: any serious psychiatrist must know, and come to grips with, the argument that the whole enterprise is fundamentally misguided.

6. Darkness Visible, by William Styron, may be forever the best account of the experience of depression. No sentimentality or silver linings here (although he did recover).

7. "Ward Six," by Anton Chekhov: There but for the grace of God...

8. "Miss Lonelyhearts," by Nathanael West, is a deeply quirky examination of the emotional hazards of the therapy project, broadly considered (in this case, pertaining to an advice columnist).

9. The Perspectives of Psychiatry, by Paul McHugh and Philip Slavney, convincingly argues for the irreducible complexity of psychiatric understanding.

10. With all due respect to Irvin Yalom, I would pick Kafka's brief, gnomic parable "Before the Law" as the ultimate existentialist text: in the end, it's unavoidably up to you.

11. (Honorable Mention): Hamlet, by William Shakespeare: the unfathomably neurotic young psychiatrist as doomed Danish tragic hero.


Anonymous said...

Which would you consider most influential in deepening your understanding of the individual psychiatrically afflicted: fiction, autobiographical accounts or clinical texts?

Nice list by the way. I've always wanted to read 'Ward Six'. Will do so now.

Novalis said...

That is a simple yet searching question. I've never been big on autobiography, perhaps because I get that, in a way, at work. After all, one goes through clinical training for a reason. Beyond all the reading, one prepares best for seeing patients by...seeing lots of patients, hearing their stories, finding out what works and what doesn't.

But while people come to practice psychiatry/psychotherapy by various legitimate routes, mine happened to be via literature (but significantly, not an academic literature department), philosophy, and chemistry.

Literature taught me, among other things, the infinite ambiguity, contingency, and irreducible subjectivity of human experience. To my mind, all great literature is wisdom literature. Philosophy showed me both the wonder and the danger of ideology and foundational questions. Chemistry convinced me of the unseen material sources of seemingly ineffable reality.

Compared to these, psychology per se, whether cognitive or psychoanalytic or whatever, has always seemed to me somewhat anemic in scope, lacking at once the grandeur of literature and the explanatory power of the hard sciences. But as a respected psychologist reminded me, while psychology may not be the only way to approach human nature, or even the best way, it is nonetheless *a* way, and one that does have its necessary place.

But I therefore could have made room on this list for Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," encountered in undergrad, which criticized the eclipse of traditional philosophical ways of knowing by newer, and arguably narrower, psychological trends.

Retriever said...

Great list! Haven't read 2,7.8 or 9.

I wasn't a great fan of Styron's book about depression. Tho I thought it a Good Thing that a man describe their struggle with depression (as people are used to women suffering from it, but many men avoid seeking treatment).

I kept thinking that he was only telling half the story. Bipolar rather than unipolar depression, I thought. Just a hunch. My kids tease that I think every creative person is bipolar... Also, he was skittish about facing the alcohol abuse. Many, many bipolar people who self-medicate with alcohol can't be helped by any antidepressant medications until they dry out (and stop using any other drugs).

I am perhaps touchy on the subject, as I have a sib who always tells peole they suffer from depression when the sib is actually ragingly manic most of the time (and thinks themself creative, productive, sexy, and the rest of the world doltish and dreary Puritans by contrast) and only thinks themself ill during the brief bleak intervals of crashing down after prolonged manias.

I thought Sophie's Choice very interesting and horrifying at the same time.

I've often wondered about Styron's illness as fairly typical of many brilliant young writers who have an early great success (Nat Turner) that brings them fame and attention, but not security, and (if anything) exacerbates their mood problems with the expectation that they will produce another and another and another best seller. Not to mention, the party circuit isn't good for anyone's health.

But think of all the writers who sink into alcoholism and/or suicidal gloom.

Of course, there is probably also an element of disease progression too. People often flame out spectacularly in youth, then have a length period of remission and productivitiy, then get much sicker many years later, etc.

Off to read (Doctor X has some cool books listed also, that I think you'd like)

Anonymous said...

I get the impression that psychology formalises the understanding of the 'meat' of raw existence. It is not the route to the essence of truth and wisdom, but the tidy wrapping that encapsulates the problem of existence enabling it to be grasped, analysed, resolved, and ultimately lived.

Pete said...

Very interested to read the Styron (despite Retriever's cautionary comments above). Hamlet is one of those plays that I always think that I've read (but haven't, may have seen a movie version). Also interested that Yalom not so much in vogue anymore. I was fascinated with him when I first read his work but found his narcissism a bit grating after a while (as much as I respected his honesty and reflexiveness). And you've convinced me to give Ward Six a read as well.

I agree that psychology's take on human experience is disappointingly limited. And I'm as interested (if not more interested) in literature than psychology.

The Alienist said...

I really enjoy Darkness Visible and have recommended it to my Abnormal Psychology class. I have also enjoyed Achilles in Vietnam, Odysseus in America , and The Inner World of Trauma . The first two use The Iliad and The Odyssey to illustrate military trauma and the return of the traumatized to society. The last uses Grimm's Fairy Tales to describe Jungian processes involved in traumatization and the preservation of the self.

I'll have to check out some of the titles you have listed. Thanks for putting your list together and for keeping up this fascinating blog.