How do you describe your occupation?
I am a college professor at Washington University in St. Louis. More specifically, a cognitive psychologist who studies learning and memory.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
A typical day would involve meetings with students, teaching my class, going to a talk, maybe writing a reference letter or reviewing a manuscript for a journal … and spending way too much time on e-mail. Writing, if there is time. I read for pleasure only at night, unless I am on vacation. Of course, much of my work reading is pleasurable, too, or else I would not want to have my job.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I am reading Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon. Recently I have been enjoying reading historical fiction about the World War II era, in particular, books by Kanon (set after the war), Alan Furst (before the war), and Philip Kerr (all three). I’ve also finished the first two of Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on the history of the wars, at least the American viewpoint. I vary all over in the books I read, fiction and nonfiction. And usually, I read more than one. On the nonfiction side, I’m reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
No, I cannot. It might have been a Dr. Seuss book. I mostly remember falling in love with books by having my father read to me at night. I particularly remember his reading Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne books and also the Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting books to me. I doubt if many people read Dr. Dolittle books any more, but I can still recall characters like the pushmi-pullyu, a memorable beast, and others. And I enjoyed reading to my own children when they were young.
What other early books made an impression on you?
In the pre-high school years, I remember reading almost all the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series. During high school, I read a lot of science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein and others. I still remember loving a book by Brian Aldiss from those years. In 1963, I remember buying and reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre within a 48-hour span.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
When did you fall in love with psychology?
I first took a course at Stetson University during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, but I don’t suppose I fell in love with the topic until college at Washington & Lee University.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
I wish I had discovered Mark Twain earlier, as well as Kurt Vonnegut. Both had a great influence on me, and I found the authors alike in many ways, though roughly a century apart in their times. I did read some Twain in high school, but then did not go back to him until my late 20s to 30s and read virtually all of his major books and his essays. The Innocents Abroad sticks in my mind for some reason, and I find myself thinking of it when touring art galleries and reliquaries in Europe. He also has a great essay on “How to Make History Dates Stick,” which I assign in some courses. My area of research is human learning and memory.
If you had to pick three books that would provide the best introduction to psychology, what would they be and why?
That is a hard one. Numerous introductory psychology textbooks exist. I co-authored one through four editions in the 1980s and 1990s. But let me take a different tact. I think one of the best books to get students interested is an old one called Psychology: The Science of Mental Life by George A. Miller, which takes a historical approach. Another classic book is Textbook of Psychology by D.O. Hebb. Miller’s book is from the early 60s and Hebb’s from the early 70s, so neither would bring one up to date on modern psychology, but they teach how to think about psychology and why it is interesting. That’s only two, but let’s keep it that way. Many good, new introductory psychology books are in press, but I won’t select one because several of my good friends are authors.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Oh, I hate this kind of question. I like to laugh, so maybe Mark Twain, Sarah Vowell, George McDonald Fraser, Kurt Vonnegut and Carl Hiassen or Dave Barry. Or both. Why not?
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
It’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Actually, I asked for it for Christmas but would have bought it if I hadn’t received it.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
The experience is what psychologists who study reading and movies called transportation. By that, they mean that the reader loses himself or herself in another place, another time, another reality. I love to be transported and lose myself in a book. One amazing human ability is that we can put a book down for 48 hours, pick it back up, and be transported back to the place quite quickly. When I pick a book up after that time, I often read the last page or two I had read before I put the book down to carry me back into the fictional setting. The same quality occurs when we watch a series on TV, say once a week. A few scenes and we are back into this other world. It’s an amazing ability.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Well, it’s older than six months, but I really liked Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. Sides writes nonfiction that is as gripping as fiction, which is a great skill. I have read all his books and his collection of essays. At the moment, I am also in the middle of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, which is another book I wish I had read long ago. It’s an eye-opening exposé of how American history is taught in high schools, although mistaught might be more accurate. Perhaps matters have changed for the better since I took American history.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?
Read widely to get numerous ideas. Also, although it is hard going at first, read books on research methods. They hone your critical thinking skills. I read 4-5 when I was in college, after taking the basic research methods course. They were somewhat redundant, but I learned new techniques and issues from reading each. And research shows that spaced repetition is a boon to learning.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
When you read all the time, both for a living and for pleasure, it is hard for any one book to really stand out. Two professional books that I have read several times are Principles of Learning and Memory by Robert Crowder (published in 1976) and Elements of Episodic Memory by Endel Tulving (1983). But they would not be for the general reader. The book I have written with the biggest impact is one on which I am second of three authors: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press, 2014). Although it came out four years ago, it is still selling well and people seem to be profiting from it. In fact, it sold 5,000 more copies in 2017 than it did in 2016. There are no plans for a paperback edition yet because the hardback edition is doing well as of this writing. Yes, I did use your question for a shameless plug of the book. Sorry.
In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?
There are too many to list. Let me just pick one topic, which is an interdisciplinary one variously called collective memory or historical memory or popular memory. For example, how do Americans remember World War II (to the extent they do) and how do their memories of “the same event” differ from memories of people from other countries, say Germans or Russians (formerly part of the Soviet Union)? I am reading and researching collective memory, reading historians and sociologists and other scholars interested in this topic. Psychologists have only recently become interested in this field and in applying their methods to study it. Usually, psychologists concentrate on memory in individuals without considering social influences on memory.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Many! When I find an author I like, I tend to read everything by him or her, although over time, not all at once. I already mentioned Hampton Sides. I read most everything by Tony Horwitz, and I loved Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume series about the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. I miss them, and I have vague thoughts of starting the series over because I finished it a decade ago. Maybe it will seem new now. I also read all of George MacDonald Frasier’s Flashman novels, although towards the end they seemed like self-parody. Sarah Vowell’s books are always interesting, enjoyable and fun. I enjoy Jeff Shaara’s books, too, and of course his father’s book, Killer Angels. I have read several of Will Cather’s books and greatly enjoyed them.
Interesting. What other authors have you followed in this way?
Well, in my 20s and 30s, I went through Hemingway, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Oh, and Tom Wolfe, too, at least his nonfiction. I also read many of Philip Roth’s books, and hope to finish them all at some point. I’m 70, so I have been reading a long time. In college, I took Russian Literature in Translation and 20th Century European Novels, and those exposed me to some great authors and I followed up on them with other works over the next 20 years. It’s hard to remember them all today. Somewhere in there, I remember reading Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, which I thought was excellent. I read through her Collected Stories later, one every week or two.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Two books by John LeCarre are next, his autobiography and his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, which helps finish the story of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I just began The Pigeon Tunnel, his autobiographical stories. So now I have been reading his work for 55 years, as I began in 1963 and now I am writing in 2018.