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Adam Phillips' 6 favorite books

The famous British psychoanalyst and therapist shares the literature that makes his brain whir

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Bantam, $10).

Melville's epic romance — and extraordinary prose poem — is about the obsessive wanting that comes from a terrible wounding. It is also​ the most expansive and exhilarating book ever written about the demonic narrowing of a mind. It dramatizes, like no other work of literature, how the unwillingness to love and/or desire people of the same sex makes us violent and strange.

The Poems of Marianne Moore (Penguin, $20).

In its inexhaustible invention, precision, and humor, this book shows us the moral insights made possible by acute description.

The Prelude by William Wordsworth (Norton, $25).

Wordsworth's 1805 Prelude, the second of three versions he would write, is the poetry of a man inspired by an unlocatable despair to make in words the good thing he has either lost or never had. It's the story of a man wondering, out of a founding confusion, which of life's pleasures should tempt him.

No Name in the Street by James Baldwin (Vintage, $15).

This collection of essays on the shortcomings of the civil rights movement is also a harrowing account of how someone might go on writing and talking and having some kind of confidence in human relations after fully acknowledging that everything in affluent Western societies is made from slavery, exploitation, and unrelenting racism.

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas (Routledge, $25).

Here is a remarkable book from a time — the mid-1960s — when anthropologists had the most interesting ideas about how to live and how not to talk about other people. It may be impossible to recover from her claim that dirt is "matter out of order." She makes it abundantly clear how much terror is created by the will to purification.

Visible Signs by Lawrence Raab (Penguin, $18).

This is a book of luminous and enigmatic poems and should inspire anyone to read all of Raab's remarkable writing. Raab has, in the American grain, a generous and ironic skepticism about charmed lives and the allure of disappointment. In Raab's poetry, the ordinary is made not merely strange but palpably uncanny.

Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, is the author of 20 books, including On Kindness, Becoming Freud, and On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored. In his latest, Unforbidden Pleasures, he muses on the ways society's rules affect what we enjoy.

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