The Best Books By Irvin Yalom

By Will Meyerhofer

The Books I Picked & Why

The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients

By Irvin D. Yalom

The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients

Why this book?

Probably the best place to start with Yalom, this book is a must-read for therapists, and I recommend it regularly to anyone getting started in the business, or even contemplating pursuing a career in psychotherapy. The hardest guide to write about psychotherapy is the book about “technique” - not the highfalutin theory laced with opaque language book, but the hands-on, “this is what you say when someone says this” or “here's what you can do when you run into someone in this sort of situation” book.  This is that book, and only Yalom, with his immense experience and humility, could pull off this slender guide, packed with the wisdom of decades of working, alone, in a room with another human being in pain.  I return to this book regularly and always find something new and useful in his words.


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The Schopenhauer Cure

By Irvin D. Yalom

The Schopenhauer Cure

Why this book?

This is my favorite of Yalom's four novels. There are two others that also weave events in the lives of philosophers into their plots, as this one works the life and work of Arthur Schopenhauer into a story concerning the vicissitudes of a psychotherapy group and its leader, a man named Julius who is loosely based (in certain respects) on Yalom himself. If you love this book as much as I did, by all means read the ones about Friedrich Nietzsche and my other favorite, concerning Baruch Spinoza. You'll learn a lot about these philosophers, as the real human beings they were, but also gain deep insight into the process of psychotherapy, all delivered with Yalom's crisp, bracingly honest, not-a-single-word-wasted style. And yeah, the fourth novel, Lying on the Couch doesn't feature a famous philosopher, but it's really good, too.


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Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy

By Irvin D. Yalom

Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy

Why this book?

I love Yalom's books of what might, in lesser hands, be termed “case studies.” I say that because Yalom is constantly writing about his work with his patients, but they never feel like a “case study” - something plodding and formulaic and one-sided. In Yalom's hands the case studies are never mere discussions of the pathologies of his patient, but rise into a magical interplay between two equals, two human beings yearning for a way to connect and heal through authentic presence, honesty, and love. If there is “classic Yalom” it is probably these books. Creatures of a Day and Loves Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy are superb as well, and frankly, I tend to think of them all as parts of a whole, one big book of Yalom's shorter pieces in which he explores his work one-on-one with the hurting human beings who show up at his door.


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Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist's Memoir

By Irvin D. Yalom

Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist's Memoir

Why this book?

An absolutely gorgeous autobiography that never for a moment bogs down in the details, but soars above the timeline of Yalom's life by concerning itself chiefly with glimmers of insight, events that have lived on in his unconscious and formed him into the healer he became. Like all of Yalom's best work, I found myself reading it slowly, savoring every word. The honesty, if you open yourself to it, and accept that he really is telling you the honest to god truth, smacks you in the face like few authors I've ever encountered. I kept thinking, if I do enough psychotherapy for long enough, I might be able to pull off this degree of self-knowledge.


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A Matter of Death and Life

By Marilyn Yalom, Irvin D. Yalom

A Matter of Death and Life

Why this book?

Yalom will turn 90 in June of 2021. In 2019, at the age of 88, he discovered his beloved wife of 65 years, Marilyn Yalom, a celebrated historian and feminist author and professor, was dying of cancer. She insisted, perhaps out of concern for Irv, that they write one final book together, each contributing alternating chapters. The result is a book of searing honesty, an honest account of profound love as well as a profound and painful loss. Irv isn't perfect – he's human, and he's getting old himself, dealing with memory loss and neurological problems. He doesn't dress anything up, but tells the truth about struggling with his own depression and despair and helplessness faced with his dread of death as well as the reality of losing the only woman he has ever loved. I read portions of this book in tears, and it pairs well with Yalom's book about confronting death, and the terror of one's own demise, in a psychotherapeutic context, "Staring into the Sun".  It was after reading A Matter of Death and Life that I dreamt of Yalom. I was sitting with him, struggling to find a way to offer him comfort, and realizing the only path forward was to open up about my own aging process, my own struggles with loss and fear of disappearing into the past. We need one another to heal. Nothing drives home that lesson better than reading the works of Irvin Yalom, especially this late work from the final years of his life.  


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