This 1400-page work in two volumes, published in 1890, is probably the best single survey of psychology ever written.
The work is of imposing size, but James covers such a wide field, so thoroughly and so engagingly, that to my own surprise I read both volumes cover to cover, back to back. The two volumes comprise 28 chapters, including "The Functions of the Brain", "Habit", "The Stream of Thought", "Attention", "Association", "Memory", "Imagination", "The Perception of Reality", "Reasoning", and "Will"--to name just a few that I found the most fascinating.
James's reasoning is sharp and subtle, his writing clear and vigorous. The qualities of his own mind, which come through in the prose, are astonishing: he is both skeptical and open-minded, deeply versed in the existing literature, and an original and fearless thinker. He must have been a fantastic prof.
I was a little afraid that the age of the book would make it antique, with fusty 19th-century notions that have long since been disproved. Not a bit! With few exceptions, the material is as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1890. Even the material on brain physiology and function, an area where the 20th century can claim to have made some progress, was sharp, perceptive, and interesting.
The advent of Freud, Pavlov, and others in the 20th century seemed to push certain theoretical ideas about the mind to the forefront, putting other, older ideas in the shade. My prejudice was that they had made 19th-century psychology irrelevant. I was wrong. There were many able minds studying psychology long before Freud, and their findings and views are well worth knowing. Among other things, James's book is a treasure-trove of psychological thinking up to the time of his writing, including many extracts by other researchers, both those he admires and those he is critical or dismissive of.
James, of course, was not merely a psychologist; he was also a philosopher. If I had to give a single reason why I think this book is excellent, it would be that James fearlessly tackles questions lying at the boundary of what today are seen as distinct disciplines. Here you'll find penetrating, persuasive insights into the nature of reasoning, logic, and the will, as well as the origin of aesthetic and moral ideas. James is as thoroughly versed in the works and ideas of Kant, Hume, Berkeley, Locke, and Mill as he is in those of his fellow psychologists. He confronts the thinking of the greatest minds with complete confidence, using his laserlike intellect to discover their obscurities and contradictions. He is their peer.
At the same time, James is humane and folksy in his style, often making references to his own experience, domestic life, and the little experiments he often performed on himself or his students. He writes with candor, humanity, and honesty. Time and again he comes to conclusions or makes observations that cut to the core of human experience altogether.
Technically this is a textbook surveying psychology, probably for a first-year introductory course. It bears almost no resemblance to the dry, cautious tomes that usually fill that role. It is an impassioned work by a learned, deep, and original mind explaining his own conclusions on this vast and elusive topic, based on long study, experiment, and careful thought. It is one of a kind. If you're interested in the human mind, this book is for you.