We humans

How our dreams illuminate our lives: A reading list

Feb 15, 2016 /

Maria Popova of brainpickings.org shares some of her favorite books relating to dreams and dreaming.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1940. Here are six books that explore how dreams, in both senses of the word — the nocturnal wanderings of the unconscious mind and the motivated marches of the conscious will — illuminate human life.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
In 1895, the pioneering psychoanalyst became intensely interested in the psychological significance of dreams. After incubating his idea for three years, he penned his seminal treatise The Interpretation of Dreams — a quest “to elucidate the processes which underlie the strangeness and obscurity of dreams, and to deduce from these processes the nature of the psychic forces whose conflict or cooperation is responsible for our dreams.”

When the book was published in 1900, Freud’s theory was met with a combination of skepticism and indifference. It took eight years for the mere 600 copies of the first edition to be sold, and Freud earned around $209 from this editorial odyssey. But as his work gained traction, so did the book. It eventually became the most widely cited work on the subject, with another seven editions printed in his lifetime.

Although a century of science has challenged many of Freud’s theories, this foundational text catalyzed the scientific community’s interest in studying sleep, consciousness and the processes that animate the unconscious mind. “Every dream,” Freud wrote, “will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.”

David the Dreamer by Ralph Bergengren
A decade after Freud’s book finally gained cultural traction, the American humorist, essayist and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren penned a philosophical children’s book about dreams. But what makes it particularly notable is that it was illustrated by the Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Freud’s brilliant and eccentric niece, born Martha, who had taken a male name and begun dressing in men’s clothes at the age of fifteen. An exceptionally talented artist, she went on to become a pioneer of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty seven. Long out of print, this rare and gorgeous book radiates the genius of a woman whose short life — like Bergengren’s story, like dreams — bridged strangeness and beauty.

The 24-Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright
Hardly any scientist has done more to illuminate the third of our lives we spend unconscious than the pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright. For half a century, she has been studying what our brains do at night and how this affects our bodies, empirically testing, correcting and expanding upon the theories of Freud and Jung. Particularly fascinating is Cartwright’s work on the relationship between sleep and depression, examining how REM sleep helps us mediate our negative moods.

Me… Jane by Patrick McDonnell
In this magnificent picture book, the English cartoonist, author and animal rights advocate Patrick McDonnell chronicles the early life of pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall — a scientist who overcame tremendous cultural odds to revolutionize our understanding of animal consciousness. McDonnell’s affectionate illustrations tell the heartening story of how the seed planted by a childhood dream blossomed, under the generous beams of deep dedication, into the reality of a purposeful life.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall
A century after Freud’s seminal theory established dreams as a worthy subject of scientific study, journalist David K. Randall traces how the evolution of science has both discredited and built upon Freud’s work to construct our present understanding of what our minds do while we sleep and how it affects our every waking moment. Randall didn’t so much arrive at the inquiry as he collided with it — after crashing into a wall while sleepwalking, he set out to elucidate “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From how genders differ in dreams to why we have nightmares, he examines the science behind the ample perplexities of our nocturnal unconscious selves, demonstrating both how far research has come in the century past Freud and how far we have yet to go in understanding these most elusive parts of ourselves.

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
This uncommonly potent collection of poems about love and power emanates the singular spirit of its author — the great poet, essayist and activist Adrienne Rich, who lived up to her dreams with unflinching idealism and created a space for shared dreams in her art.

The book was the first Rich published after coming out as a lesbian in 1976, two decades before she became the first and, to date, the only person to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, which she did in protest agains the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. For a taste of Rich’s abiding genius, here is a poem from the book:

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power