My Personal Canon by Geoffrey Magnus

by Geoffrey Magnus

About 10 years ago, I began to wonder if there exists a canon of literature in psychotherapy; i.e., are there books on psychotherapy that everyone in the field should read? To this end, I surveyed over 300 psychotherapists and asked them what books they thought were essential to the field. The results: No one book was recommended by more than three of the psychotherapists I surveyed, and not one psychotherapist recommended a list of more than three books.

When I tried to come up with my own list, I came up with just one book, Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. So for the past 10 years, I have been trying to develop my own list of books that I believe everyone in the field should read. When I finally did develop my personal canon, I was rather surprised by what I came up with. I was expecting to develop a list of classics published over the last100 years. I was shocked when I realized that most of the books on my list were written during the past 20 years. This may reflect the rather shallow and restricted nature of my reading. However, I prefer to believe that the contemporary nature of my list reflects the explosive growth in our knowledge of psychotherapy, neurobiology and psychology since 1990.

My list reflects both my prejudices and my disabilities, and I would be delighted if those of you who do not share my prejudices and disabilities would comment or provide suggestions for other important works that my blind spots have caused me to omit.

The Canon

1) Sigmund Freud: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Psychotherapy started with Freud. He discovered not only the importance of unconscious processes but also the importance of listening and the relationship. He was the first to report that understanding and communication help relieve distress, pain and psychopathology. Freud also believed firmly in a neurobiological basis for all psychological processes.

2) Robert Karen: Becoming Attached. This is a very readable and popular history of the study of attachment from Freud, Harlow and Spitz to Bowlby, Ainsworth through Maine, and Hesse. It is by far the best introduction to the field I have seen. I prefer reading it rather than going back to the original sources.

3) Allan Schore: Affective Regulation and the Origin of the Self. This is the most complete and coherent presentation of the neurobiology of psychotherapy ever written. Everything in Schore’s later books is implicit in this book. His later books are collections of papers. This book is an organic whole.

4) Daniel Siegel: The Mindful Brain. Siegel has written several very useful books. This one summarizes the way neurobiology, mindfulness and attachment relate to psychotherapy. His case examples are wonderful.

5) Daniel Siegel: The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. In his first book, Siegel presents about co-parenting and is an exciting integration of attachment theory and neurobiology. Both Siegel’s and Schore’s books have given me a fundamental understanding of what psychotherapy really is.

6) Louis Cozolino: The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Schore, Siegel, and Cozolino have all worked together in Los Angeles since the beginning of the last decade to help us understand what psychotherapy really is. Reading each of them will give you a deeper understanding of the revolution in our field. Cozolino is an excellent writer, and his clinical examples are powerful and moving.

7) Richard Davidson: The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Davidson develops a new empirical classification of mental and emotional capacities, which is an interesting way of looking at the mind. However, what I find most useful in this book is the summary of his research on meditation. I use this to convince myself to keep working on my meditation. It is very useful in explaining to patients why meditation would help them.

8) John Allen: Treating Trauma with Plain Old Psychotherapy: Mentalizing in Clinical Practice. This is the only book on how to do psychotherapy I have ever been able to read. Allen explains both the biological and the psychological bases of psychotherapy in a very clear and coherent way. An experienced psychotherapist of any persuasion will read this book and say, “So that’s what I’ve been doing for all these years.” I have found that understanding what I am doing has helped me to do it better.

9) Elkhonon Goldberg: The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, and The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Ages. In these two books, not only does Goldberg give a clear understanding of executive function and explain the biology of Erikson’s generativity stage, he also 1) gives a clear explanation of the functioning of the right and left brain hemispheres, and 2) presents a clear and interesting model of the organization of the cerebral cortex. He also includes some good stories about his remarkable escape from Soviet Russia. Ever since I was in Sperry’s lab almost 50 years ago, I have wondered what the real differences between the left and right hemispheres are. Like most of us, I have blathered a lot of nonsense on the subject to patients. Reading Goldberg and Davidson has given me a clearer understanding of the real nature of the hemispheric differences. These differences are not what I used to think they were. Alan Schore tends to ignore most of this in his writing and exaggerates the importance of the right hemisphere; however, this small blemish in no way diminishes the greatness of Shore’s work.

10) George Valiant: Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope and Love. As a cynical atheist and an empiricist, I have some difficulty helping my patients with their spiritual issues. Despite my own personal attitudes, there is a good deal of evidence that spirituality improves psychological functioning. Valiant describes spirituality in a way I understand and in a way that can help patients get through spiritual crises. He cites a lot of interesting research.

11) Bill Wilson: Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book). Wilson developed a self-sustaining, very loosely controlled organization that has helped tens of millions of people get sober. Twelve-step programs have also been very useful to people with other problems and addictions. As I stated, I have problems reading self-help books. I don’t think I could have understood the Big Book without the many hours I have spent with patients who were working programs and willing to teach me. It’s best to learn the program from people and the program, but the Big Book is a very good place to start.

12) Simon Baron-Cohn: Mind Blindness. Borat’s first cousin has written an eye-opening book on the theory of mind and how autistic minds differ from those of neurotypicals. This book looks at the mind in startling ways, and it greatly facilitated my work with Aspergers patients and their families. A very important part of the theory of mind is mentalizing, or mindfulness.

13) Jeffrey Young: Schema Focused Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. Schema focused therapy is ignored in the literature and very seldom referred to. There is very strong empirical evidence that it is by far the most effective treatment for borderline personality disorder. (This leads me to believe that our field is hampered by the belief that it is better to be Kernberg than to be right.).

14) John Gottman: Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work. Okay, so this is another self-help book, but what Gottman has written is clear and simple for professionals. Also, research and neurobiological thinking are rare in family therapy. It takes more than reading a book to use the Gottman method with patients, but having them read the book and discussing it with them is often very helpful.

15) Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence. Goleman and his two friends from graduate school, John Kabot-Zinn and Richard Davidson, are the East Coast component of the recent revolution in psychotherapy (Schore, Siegel and Cozolino are the West Coast component). This book was the first to show that most of the intelligence in the brain is social. Before Goleman, most of us thought that intelligence consisted of math, foreign languages, literature, philosophy and memorization. His ideas are now taken for granted and incorporated into most psychotherapy. This book has had a tremendous impact on our field.

16) Jean Piaget: The Origins of Intelligence in Children. It seems to be a requirement that any paper published in developmental psychology must prove that Piaget was wrong about something; and many of his books seem to be out of print. Nonetheless, Piaget shows clearly that children think very differently from adults. Most of the papers proving Piaget “wrong” seem to demonstrate to me only that the way you ask the question affects the answer you get. Piaget is readable and provides clear insight into the human mind. He outlines the way that thought develops with age.

As I have stated, this list is idiosyncratic and tentative. I would love to hear from other members about which suggestions you feel should be added or removed from this list. I also welcome you to contact me directly at for further discussion.

If we can all reach some approximate consensus, it might be appropriate for societies of clinical social work to encourage schools of social work to develop curricula which reflect the readings that experienced clinicians have found useful. Thanks in advance for your comments and ideas!

– Geoffrey Magnus