The best books on psychological enquiry written in alternative formats

Why am I passionate about this?

Certain books have the ability to inspire you or help you go beyond the boundaries of your understanding, to teach you something new or to show you how to look at things differently, to alter and enhance your perception. Each of these texts have encouraged and enchanted me, with hard-won truths. I appreciate the style of writing which draws you further and further into the author's psyche, and thus into your own, like deep diving into uncharted depths. Also, as someone who tries to write poetry and prose, I find each of these writers have a refreshing and interesting technique and method of communicating their thoughts and ideas.

I wrote...

Exit Rostov

By Henry Virgin,

Book cover of Exit Rostov

What is my book about?

Travelling through Central Asia in 1996, Frederick Lyre learns of his best friend's disappearance and changes plans to go and find him. Picking up the trail in Moscow, he ventures south to the post-Soviet depths of Rostov-on-Don and further into the hinterlands of the fragmented Soviet Union, where he is led deeper into the tangled fate of his oldest friend.

Uncovering hidden characteristics and unexpected motives, Frederick fears that his friend, presumed dead, has been caught up in a tragic sequence of events leading to his destruction. As a rite of passage, a journey of discovery, a travelogue, and a psychological portrait of friendship, the novel draws the reader into the hidden world of being which beats beneath the semblance of reality. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Henry Virgin Why did I love this book?

If you would like to try and understand the Soviet and post-Soviet psyche, these first-hand, verbatim interviews from 1991-2012, by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel Laureate, question and discuss what it means and meant to be a Soviet. With a wide selection of individual testimonies from different backgrounds of the Soviet Union, from ordinary folk to officials, prisoners, relatives of those who were murdered, the executioners, the book also investigates how they coped when the Soviet Union broke down. Written from transcribed, spoken recordings, these documentary / reportage texts get to the heart of the matter—often that there is a gaping vacancy in the place of what one had previously believed in, from one's earliest of days, even before becoming a red-scarfed Pioneer. When one's whole philosophical fabric has been torn down, how do you exist? How do you cope and make sense of the world? What really is so special about this book is that it is candid, first hand, from voices, deep within the system, away from the regular propaganda streams. 

By Bela Shayevich, Svetlana Alexievich,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Secondhand Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A symphonic oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia, from Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature


The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Wall Street Journal • NPR • Financial Times • Kirkus Reviews

When the Swedish Academy awarded Svetlana Alexievich the…

Book cover of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

Henry Virgin Why did I love this book?

Nabokov's ability to catch and pin ephemeral ideas provides sumptuous reflections in this prism of his analytic perception. Speak, Memory is a ludic, linguistic, conjuring of memories. The chapters were written on different occasions and collated for this purpose. He even wrote an extra Chapter (16) as an anonymous reviewer, explaining "He (Nabokov) is out to prove that his childhood contained, on a much-reduced scale, the main components of his creative maturity; thus, through the thin sheath of a ripe chrysalis one can see, in its small wing cases, the dawning of color and pattern, a miniature revelation of the butterfly that will soon emerge and let its flushed and diced wings expand to many times their pupal size." I most admire his ability to analyse a memory and comprehend it in atomic scale.

Maybe it mesmerised me because I was in a remote city in Russia, and it was fascinating to read of Nabokov's early life, his youth, his loves, his understanding of his close family, chess, butterflies, his education and upbringing, his synaesthesia, his learning of English which were all brought to light in obsessive detail. Maybe it was just his magnetic mastery of English which made this book such an exquisite riddle to revel in.

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Speak, Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An autobiographical volume which recounts the story of Nabokov's first forty years up to his departure from Europe for America at the outset of World War Two. It tells of his emergence as a writer, his early loves and his marriage, and his passions for butterflies and his lost homeland. Written in this writer's characteristically brilliant, mordant style, this book is also a tender record of lost childhood and youth in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Book cover of Riot Days

Henry Virgin Why did I love this book?

The book describes the performance, arrest, and prison term, of Maria Alyokhina, in deft, immediate, and succinct ‘beat’ style lingo, illustrated with her drawings. The text is refreshing on the open page, well spaced out. As one of the key members of Pussy Riot, her bravery shines out for her courageous activism which continues to this day. On 21 February 2012 the band performed their anti-Putin, anti-patriarchy Punk Prayer, called "Holy Shit", on the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Critical of the relationship between the orthodox Church and Putin, with lines including “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out”, or “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Be a feminist! Be a feminist!” the band managed to escape after the performance, but the video went viral, leading to their arrest and imprisonment. Testament to her punk character and iron resolve, the book describes the terrible prison conditions, and how, even in confinement, Maria Alyokhina's was ceaseless in her activities, protesting on behalf of her fellow inmates for successful penal reforms.

I'd also recommend her fellow Pussy rioter Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's prison letters to Slavoj Žižek, available on The Guardian website. The Pussy Rioters are soon on tour in the UK.

By Maria Alyokhina,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From activist, Pussy Riot member and freedom fighter Maria Alyokhina, a raw, hallucinatory, passionate account of her arrest, trial and imprisonment in a penal colony in the Urals for standing up for what she believed in.

'One of the most brilliant and inspiring things I've read in years. Couldn't put it down. This book is freedom' Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick

'Reading: RIOT DAYS, by PussyRiot member MariaAlyokhina. A women's prison memoir like no other! One tough cookie!' @MargaretAtwood

'In oppressive political systems, some of the most effective weapons are sarcasm and dark humour. It is exactly these…

Book cover of The Idiot

Henry Virgin Why did I love this book?

I would read this book only for Prince Myshkin the so-called "Idiot", a holy fool, and Nastasya Filippovna, a complex, piteous, feisty, worshipped, orphaned, tormented, tragic woman of great beauty who was brought up to be a kept mistress. Aside from Nastasya Filippovna, the beauty of the book is reading how Myshkin navigates around his own sense of divided love, between Nastasya and Aglaya and how he contends with the greed and ambition of others. His thoughts on death, execution, infidelity, insanity, the profound depths of mentality, of dread and fear, are all presented in the unravelling of this tragic tale set amongst a small group of individuals in St Petersburg in the mid-19th century. Written in instalments, the intricate plots, the love triangles, the tragic love story intensifies as the narrative continues. But essentially, I really chose this book, for Myshkin's soul-searching soliloquies, his internal dialogues in which you sense you can hear the voice of Dostoevsky. The description of the moments before Myshkin has an epileptic fit, is a fascinating insight into Dostoevsky's own illness, if not, his own creative process.

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Constance Garnett (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Idiot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Translated by Constance Garnett, with an Introduction and Notes by Agnes Cardinal, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Kent.

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from an asylum in Switzerland. As he becomes embroiled in the frantic amatory and financial intrigues which centre around a cast of brilliantly realised characters and which ultimately lead to tragedy, he emerges as a unique combination of the Christian ideal of perfection and Dostoevsky's own views, afflictions and manners. His serene selflessness is contrasted with the worldly qualities of every other character in the novel. Dostoevsky supplies a harsh indictment of…

Book cover of The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus

Henry Virgin Why did I love this book?

As Cyril Connolly himself writes, "What follows are the doubts and reflections of a year, a word-cycle in three or four rhythms; art, love, nature and religion: an experiment in self dismantling..." This fragmentary method of writing, with quotes, aphorisms, epigrams, allusions, from a litany of great writers, thinkers, and diarists, with sudden reflections on love, the loss of love, spirituality, desire, literature, art, and psychology are the collected musings of Cyril Connolly, first published in 1944 in Horizon, the magazine he was founder and editor for.  My favourite parts of his writing are the plentiful poetic depictions of the scene, usually with the aid of perspicacious and evocative lists, revealing the interior life of the poetic author: "Dead leaves, coffee grounds, grenadine, tabac Maryland, mental expectation - perfumes of the Nord-Sud; autumn arrival at Pigalle..." 

This book is a literary sketch or prayer book, overflowing with ideas and impressions, deeply felt articulations of the psyche, of collated philosophies, of what constitutes one's being, often pitched with crystalline melancholy providing momentary and heartfelt illuminations away from any unnecessary or phoney narratives.

By Cyril Connolly,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This enduring classic is "a book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough" (Ernest Hemingway).

Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) was one of the most influential book reviewers and critics in England, contributing regularly to The New Statesmen, The Observer, and The Sunday Times. His essays have been collected in book form and published to wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The Unquiet Grave is considered by many to be his most enduring work. It is a highly personal journal written during the devastation of World War II, filled with reflective passages that…

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American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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