A Few Bookish Questions With Katy Milkman

Katy Milkman is one of my favorite thinkers and researchers working today. I’ve long enjoyed her papers on the practical science of behavior change. Her new book, How to Change, is wonderful (review coming in a couple weeks) and she was kind enough to take the time to answer questions about her favorite books.

1. You study human behavior—especially behavioral change. What are the classic/great books on that subject that you refer back to you a lot or that have particularly shaped your own research and line of work? 

The two classic books in my area that I refer to over and over again are Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.  Their titles give a pretty good summary of the material they cover!

2. Are there any dark horse books from your field that the average modern reader may not have heard about, but is worth their attention?

Ah, that’s an easy one!  I’ll go with The Winner’s Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life by Richard Thaler. It’s a book that most people haven’t read, but it’s brilliant. It’s actually the book that convinced me to become behavioral scientist.  

3. You mentioned in our Art of Manliness interview that James Patterson's Alex Cross series is a guilty pleasure for you. Can you pinpoint what you enjoy about that series? Any others that you feel like divulging? 

Admittedly, the Alex Cross series is a bit formulaic, but it’s also reliably exciting. I love listening to books while I exercise, and the right book to pair with an intense workout needs to fit a certain profile. It needs enough action and suspense to hold my attention, but it can’t be too complicated—if there are a lot of different threads to keep track of, I get lost while I’m pushing myself at the gym. Some of the books I found particularly well-suited to enjoying during exercise include anything by Dan Brown, The Hunger Games books, the Sookie Stackhouse series (best known as the basis for the HBO show True Blood), and the Harry Potter novels.

4. What else do you read outside of "work" reading (which I imagine is mostly psychology, research, etc.)? Any authors or other genres you really like?

I’m a fiction lover. I adore Haruki Murakami, Elena Ferrante, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Jeffrey Eugenides. My first research project ever, actually, which I did as a college senior, was a statistical analysis of a decade of New Yorker fiction (you can read about it here), and I discovered Eugenides on that adventure. 

5. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list? 

I just finished Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner, which was a fun escape (and I enjoyed that it was written by a Philadelphia author). Next on my list is First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami.

6. Any all-time favorite books that have especially stuck with you and/or shaped your thinking over the years? Books that you think about a lot? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever it is. 

What a great question. There are so many books I want to list, but I’ll try to refrain from going on forever. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one. The Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante were also amazing and haunting. A couple of non-fiction books that I think about often are The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin and The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. My favorite book as a teenager was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it with my son when he’s old enough. Typical American by Gish Jen really made an impression on me, as did Call Me If You Need Me by Raymond Carver. And then there’s Bossypants by Tina Fey—a book that made me laugh so hard I cried (I still sometimes find myself thinking about it and giggle spontaneously). Finally, Open by Andre Agassi is simply incredible.