The best books on Freud and his legacy

Todd Dufresne Author Of The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life
By Todd Dufresne

Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy and editor or author of 12 books. I started out in ‘Freud Studies’ in the 1990s with no agenda, just a deep interest in Freud’s ideas. Since then I’ve written quite a lot on it. Unfortunately, the field is so contentious, so overrun with books by former patients and analysts, that casual readers couldn’t possibly make heads or tails of it. Readers are best served by reading complete works of Freud and making their own assessments. After that, they can look at Freud’s voluminous and eye-opening correspondence with colleagues. Then they can consult good books, and lists of recommended works, that put them in the right direction.

I wrote...

The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life

By Todd Dufresne,

Book cover of The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life

What is my book about?

The Late Sigmund Freud is one of very few book-length accountings of the “late” or “cultural”  Freud of 1920-1939. This is shocking because the works of this period, such as Civilization & Its Discontents, are actually among Freud’s most famous. Dufresne attempts to understand the so-called ‘sociological’ Freud in its own terms, relate it to the broader socio-intellectual context of Freud’s time, and assess Freud’s conscious attempt to provide the ‘last word’ on the meaning of his theory and practice of psychoanalysis.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist

Why did I love this book?

This is a very good, fair, smart, early interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis in general, and of its significance for culture and intellectual history in particular. It’s very well written, probably because Susan Sontag (Rieff’s wife at the time) is widely reported to have actually written the book, and in the 1960s the book became highly influential. It is easily Rieff’s best book. 

By Philip Rieff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freud as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a classic, this book was hailed upon its original publication in 1959 as "An event to be acclaimed . . . a book of genuine brilliance on Freud's cultural importance . . . a permanently valuable contribution to the human sciences."-Alastair MacIntyre, Manchester Guardian

"This remarkably subtle and substantial book, with its nicely ordered sequences of skilled dissections and refined appraisals, is one of those rare products of profound analytic thought. . . . The author weighs each major article of the psychoanalytic canon in the scales of his sensitive understanding, then gives a superbly balanced judgement."-Henry A. Murray,…

Book cover of The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry

Why did I love this book?

Ellenberger was one of the first and most important historians of psychiatry, and is still remembered for this dense, learned, comprehensive history of the origins of ‘dynamic psychiatry.’ At over 900 pages long, Ellenberger provides copious evidence that research on "the unconscious” long predates its ‘discovery’ by Sigmund Freud. It has since 1970 been lovingly mined by informed scholars for its encyclopedic review of the major movements of dynamic psychiatry and of a sometimes obscure, often technically-challenging literature.  

By Henri F. Ellenberger,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Discovery of the Unconscious as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic work is a monumental, integrated view of man's search for an understanding of the inner reaches of the mind. In an account that is both exhaustive and exciting, the distinguished psychiatrist and author demonstrates the long chain of development,through the exorcists, magnetists, and hypnotists,that led to the fruition of dynamic psychiatry in the psychological systems of Janet, Freud, Adler, and Jung.

Book cover of Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend

Why did I love this book?

While some thinkers, such as Ernest Jones and Philip Rieff, had noted Freud’s lifelong reliance on 19th-century biology, it wasn’t until Sulloway’s tome of 1979 that a systematic investigation of Freud’s embarrassing biology was published. Hence the demystification Sulloway offers of a ‘psychoanalytic legend’ that routinely erases the foundational roles that Lamarckian inheritance and Haeckelian recapitulation play throughout Freud’s oeuvre. This dense, difficult, but well-argued and undeniable work is meant for experts but is key for all serious students of psychoanalysis. 

By Frank J. Sulloway,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freud, Biologist of the Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this monumental intellectual biography, Frank Sulloway demonstrates that Freud always remained, despite his denials, a biologist of the mind; and, indeed, that his most creative inspirations derived significantly from biology. Sulloway analyzes the political aspects of the complex myth of Freud as psychoanalytic hero as it served to consolidate the analytic movement. This is a revolutionary reassessment of Freud and psychoanalysis.

Book cover of The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute

Why did I love this book?

This well-written, tightly-argued little book of 1995 gathers together four feature articles from The New York Review of Books that together represent a watershed moment in ‘Freud Studies.’ For here was the NYRB, a long-standing bastion of psychoanalysis, publishing splashy articles that functioned like a Hollywood expose of Freud’s failings as a man, thinker, and therapist. In truth, Crews was simply giving voice to a ‘revisionist’ portrait of Freud that started in earnest in the wake of Jones’s three-volume ‘life and work’ of Freud (1953-57). Best of all: Crews connects it all to the ‘recovered memory’ movement of the 1980s and 90s, thereby drawing a  disturbing portrait of Freud’s legacy.  

By Frederick Crews,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Memory Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The author's critique of Freudian psychoanalyis and the "recovered memory" movement, first published in 1993 in The New York Review of Books to a storm of controversy, is presented along with twenty-five responses. IP.

Freud's Patients: A Book of Lives

By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen,

Book cover of Freud's Patients: A Book of Lives

Why did I love this book?

In principle, psychoanalytic theory and practice rely on evidence adduced from the clinical case studies of patients. Freud, however, presented very few such cases. With this in mind, Borch-Jacobsen has done something of permanent importance to the field: he researched and wrote 38 ‘lost’ and unofficial case studies of Freud’s patients and gathered them all into one volume. The book as such functions as a shocking disconfirmation of everything we thought we knew about Freud the man, the theorist, and the therapist. And, best of all, it does so in plain, highly accessible language.  

By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freud's Patients as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Everyone knows the characters described by Freud in his case histories: 'Dora', the 'Rat Man', the 'Wolf Man'. But what do we know of the people, the lives behind these famous pseudonyms: Ida Bauer, Ernst Lanzer, Sergius Pankejeff? Do we know the circumstances that led them to Freud's consulting-room, or how they fared - how they really fared - following their treatments?
And what of those patients about whom Freud wrote nothing, or very little: Pauline Silberstein, who threw herself from the fourth floor of her analyst's building; Elfriede Hirschfeld, Freud's 'grand-patient' and 'chief tormentor'; the fashionable architect Karl Mayreder;…

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