Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Desert Island Musings: If Only One, Which Would You Take?

In the classic desert island scenario, what psychology book would you carry?

Summer officially began last week and many psychology teachers are enjoying a break from the classroom, whether real or virtual. I am one of them. And the other day, while doing some yard work, I played that favorite mental parlor game “If you were stranded on a desert island what x would you take with you?” In this case, I though of x not as “that one album” or “a favorite food,” but as the one indispensable psychological work I would want to take with me as I bummed along the solitary beach.

If you read psychology works regularly, this is by no means an easy task. In the first, place, much of the psychological literature is shared in scientific journals. I cannot imagine wanting to spend my imagined time in the tropics reading an article from or even a whole issue of Psychological Review or even the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Why? Articles have become more and more focused on less and less—a good thing where thoroughness and accuracy are concerned, but a bit to dry if one were stranded far from the maddening crowd.

What about popular trade books dealing with psychology? It often seems that every psychologist with a “name” is now writing a trade book. Many of them are quite good. If you decided to read about the nature of happiness, for example, there are now probably a couple dozen titles to choose from (perhaps because of the popularity of positive psychology—or perhaps because of our cultural malaise where meaning and purpose are concerned). Or you might choose one of the many volumes dealing with decision making or psychological reasoning. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, for example, is a fine and comprehensive choice from that category. Still, I wonder if these current trade books—while much more engaging than journal articles—aren’t still a bit too narrow for a Robinson Crusoe experience.

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This leads us to some psychological classics, I think. Perhaps Skinner’s Walden Two, which might encourage you to create the perfect island community (albeit for one person)? Victor Frankl’s wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning would be a good, if somewhat dark, choice. Speaking of dark, there is always Milgram’s Obedience to Authority or the Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, which would be a fine choice and would pass the time well. Freud’s entire oeuvre fills multiple volumes and he was a great and consistent writer, but many readers might grow tired of revisiting the same themes (e.g., Oedipal conflict) throughout the Freudian arc. If so, then one could cut to the chase and read just one book from Freud—I’d suggest Civilization and Its Discontents—where in the thematic greatest hits of psychoanalysis are presented. What about Jung’s works? If you wanted a great challenge, maybe—however, I confess I’ve always found Jung to be a bit incomprehensible and no where near the writer or prose stylist that Freud turns out to be.

What’s left? I suppose one might take along a hefty introductory or general psychology text to pass the time. There are many to choose from and most are very well-written (and there are pictures!). The advantage of one of these big books is that it would give you a chance to read about human psychology from brain to social behavior and everything in between—a veritable Cook’s tour of psychology.

But wait—no one said a book about psychology had to be a psychology book per se—think outside the beach chair for a moment. What about a great psychological novel, such as Anna Karenina or Death in Venice or Stegner’s Crossing to Safety? Or maybe the collected plays of Eugene O’Neill? Or the plays of Arthur Miller? Or all the works of Philip Roth?

My own choice would be the Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Regardless of who you believe wrote them, play for play, there is no better source of psychological insight into the human drama of daily life than Shakespeare. Without much thought (or the need to locate my copy of the Riverside Shakespeare), I know that the plays deal with the essence of humanity and human experience—love, lust, hate, life, death, ambition, failure, misunderstanding, emotion, jealousy, avarice, war, peace, humor, pity, hope, longing, family, sloth, rivalry, self-awareness and the lack thereof. So, for me, the play is the thing to pass the time like Tom Hanks and his friend, Wilson.

What about you? What psychological work—broadly defined—would you take with you for your Castaway experience on the proverbial desert isle? And why?

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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