A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Jung

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Jung

“[The introverted thinking type]… tends to vanish behind a cloud of misunderstanding… Although he will shrink from no danger in building up his world of ideas, and never shrinks from thinking a thought because it might prove to be dangerous, subversive, heretical, or wounding to other people’s feelings, he is none the less beset by the greatest anxiety if ever he has to make it an objective reality. That goes against the grain. And when he puts his ideas into the world, he never introduces them like a mother solicitous for her children, but simply dumps them there and gets extremely annoyed if they fail to thrive on their own account…. However clear to him the inner structure of his thoughts may be, he is not in the least clear where or how they link up with the world of reality. Only with the greatest difficulty will he bring himself to admit that what is clear to him may not be equally clear to everyone. His style is cluttered with all sorts of adjuncts, accessories, qualifications, retractions, saving clauses, doubts, etc., which all come from his scrupulosity. His work goes slowly and with difficulty.”

Jung (1920)[1]

It occasionally happens that a new student shows up in one of our Jungian Center classes with a demeanor that I have come to recognize: Curious, but dazed, interested in knowing more about Jung, but wary of trying to read him, the student (it turns out) had jumped into the first book by Jung he/she came across and it turned out to be “Aion,”[2] “Psychology and Alchemy,”[3] “Alchemical Studies,”[4] or “Mysterium Coniunctionis.”[5] These are Jung’s master works—the books he worked on after his heart attack and near-death experience in 1944, after which he decided to write for himself,[6] rather than trying to reach the general public. For a beginner student of Jung to tackle any one of these volumes would be like a beginner student of the piano taking up a Beethoven sonata!

This essay endeavors to identify and introduce some of the more straightforward writings by Carl Jung (yes! there are such things!) that are both easy to understand and also full of his wisdom.

First, we should note that Jung was a prolific author. His Collected Works comprise 18 large volumes[7] of his essays and books, but this by no means covers all he wrote: Several hundred of his letters have been published in two volumes;[8] and some of the notes from his seminars exist in multiple volumes,[9] along with the facsimile edition of his Red Book.[10] In addition to these thousands of pages, the Philemon Foundation is publishing others of Jung’s works, estimating that only a portion of Jung’s total writings have been published![11]

As a general rule of thumb, Jung’s lectures, letters and interviews are easier for a beginner to read, as Jung’s intent was to be understood by his listeners, correspondent or interviewer. So, for example, the 11 essays which Cary Baynes translated into English and published as Modern Man in Search of a Soul began life as lectures and so are fairly straightforward.[12] Likewise, Jung’s Seminar on Dream Analysis has 51 lectures that reveal Jung at his colloquial, informal best.[13]

The general collection of Jung’s letters offers both readable English and also insights into Jung writing “off the cuff,” as it were (replete with ribaldry and jokes).[14] This collection is more accessible for the beginner than the more specialized collections of letters, e.g. the Jung-White correspondence (which gets into intricacies of Catholic theology and a deep debate on the privatio boni, the Christian concept of evil as the absence of good),[15] or the Jung-Pauli correspondence (heavy on quantum physics and its relation to archetypes).[16]

Several of Jung’s works were specifically written for laypeople. The Undiscovered Self  “was prompted by conversations by Dr. Jung and Dr. Carleton Smith, director of the National Arts Foundation, which brought it to the attention of the editors of the Atlantic Monthly Press.”[17] It was originally a short work in German, later translated into English by Jung’s main translator, R.F.C. Hull, and published as a small paperback.[18] A later revision appears in CW 10, ¶s488-588. In this readable cri de Coeur Jung appeals to people to realize the importance of the unconscious, the soul, and the supreme value of the individual—since any one of us just might be “… the makeweight that tips the scales”[19] and saves the world from destruction.

Another short essay, “Approaching the Unconscious,” Jung finished just ten days before his death in 1961.[20] He wrote it at the behest of Wolfgang Foges, who had seen John Freeman’s BBC interview of Jung in 1959. Foges, the managing director of Aldus Books, wanted to get Jung’s work more widely known to the general public.[21] Jung, however, was 84 years old, and infirm; there was no way he could undertake to write a whole book, but he had a dream indicating that his work was to gain a wider audience,[22] so he enlisted some collaborators: Marie-Louise von Franz, Joseph Henderson, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi, each of whom wrote an essay around the topic of symbols.[23] The book, Man and His Symbols, appeared shortly after Jung died. All five essays, and von Franz’s concluding remarks, are suitable for a beginning student of Jung.

John Freeman’s interview was not the only time Jung was approached by journalists. C.G. Jung Speaking[24] is a wonderful collection of interviews and encounters by people who knew, met or interviewed Jung over fifty years, from his old school chum Albert Oeri, to Charles Lindbergh and a host of Jung’s students, and a global array of journalists.[25] Very readable, and full of moments of intimacy and warmth, this is one of the most enjoyable introductions to both Jung the man and his thought.

Another good introduction to Jung the man is his memoir. As with Man and His Symbols, this book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections began with a publisher’s wish. In the summer of 1956 Kurt Wolff, the publisher of Pantheon books, told friends of his from Zürich of his wish to publish a biography of Jung.[26] Jung’s secretary, Aniella Jaffé, was entrusted with the difficult task of cajoling Jung into participating.[27] As a strong Introvert, Jung was not inclined to “expose his personal life to the public eye,”[28] and it was a long time (over a year) before he finally agreed to participate in the project. I say “project” rather than “autobiography” because Jung focused on what, to him, were the core realities: his dreams, his inner life, his near-death experience, his work with patients. The structure, in other words, is more topical than linear, more thematic and less fact-filled than would be the case with a standard autobiography.

The “so-called autobiography”[29] took form by Jung speaking and Aniela recording his words. Their progress was fitful, as Jung had other projects going (like his study of flying saucers,[30] various forewords to books related to his interests,[31] and the never-ending correspondence that followed from his earlier work “Answer to Job”).[32] Before a final manuscript had been completed, Jung died, entrusting Aniela “with the responsibility for the final version of the whole manuscript.”[33] This proved to be a thankless task, for it put Aniela in the middle of multiple “power plays”[34] between the publishers and Jung’s heirs, with demands for textual emendations coming from all directions. The final version did not see the light of day until 1963, two years after Jung died.[35]

For a beginner interested in knowing more about Jung, his values, interests, and perspective on life, few books are more appropriate. Memories is readable, warm and personal. But don’t expect to have a neat, clear timeline spelled out. For that, look to the definitive biography of Jung by Deirdre Bair.[36]

Some of the essays in Collected Works are also written in a way that is accessible to the beginner, e.g. “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man,”[37] “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies,”[38] “Freud and Jung: Contrasts,”[39] “The Significance of the Father in the Destiny of the Individual,”[40] and “On the Nature of Dreams.”[41] None of these works is laden with the Latin and Greek that fills the alchemical studies, nor are they replete with lots of technical terms.

If I were asked by a beginner what work to start with among Jung’s oeuvre, I would suggest The Undiscovered Self first, followed by Jung’s memoir, and C.G. Jung Speaking. These would give a basic sense of both the man and his perspective. Thereafter, the more accessible essays and Jung’s letters and seminars would amplify the beginner’s exposure, and he/she would likely, after this, no longer be a beginner.


Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Jung, C.G. (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

_________(1933), Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

________ (1958), The Undiscovered Self. New York: New American Library.

________ ed. (1964), Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1998), Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ed. James Jarrett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2001), Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters, 1932-1958, ed. C.A. Meier. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2007), The Jung-White Letters, ed. Ann Conrad Lammers & Adrian Cunningham. New York: Routledge Philemon Series.

________ (2008), Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2009), The Red Book Liber Novus, ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W. Norton.

[1] Collected Works 6 ¶634. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW. In this passage Jung was writing about the INTP type, his own type, which is one reason for his style being hard to read.

[2] CW 9ii.

[3] CW 12.

[4] CW 13.

[5] CW 14.

[6] Bair (2003), 500.

[7] The other two volumes, CW 19 & 20, are a bibliography of Jung’s works and an Index of the collection, respectively.

[8] Selected and edited by Gerhard Adler, in collaboration with Aniela Jaffé, and translated (where necessary) by R.F.C. Hull. Volume 1 covers the years 1906-1950, volume 2, 1951-1961.

[9] E.g. Children’s Dreams, a seminar given in 1936-1940; Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, given in 1934-1939; and the Seminar on Dream Analysis, given in 1928-1930.

[10] This edition is a folio-sized volume, i.e., too large and heavy for easy reading. A “reader’s edition” was published shortly after the initial publication, containing only the text, not the plates.

[11] See www.philemonfoundation.org/about-philemon/about-jung

[12] “Translator’s Preface,” Jung (1933), 3.

[13] Edited by William McGuire. As was the case in many of his seminars, Jung spoke in English.

[14] E.g. see Jung’s letter to Walter Robert Corti, in which he refers to Corti’s doctor as a “stupid shitbag.” 30 April 1929; Letters, I, 65.

[15] Edited by Ann Conrad Lammers and Adrian Cunningham. The Christian concept of evil was one of Jung’s bug-a-boos, and he never could get Father Victor White to see his point. For more on this, see my book, The Spiritual Adventure of Our Time.

[16] Edited by C.A. Meier, translated from the German by David Roscoe.

[17] CW 10, p. 245.

[18] Ibid. The paperback edition I own was published by New American Library in 1958.

[19] Ibid, ¶586.

[20] Freeman, “Introduction,” Jung et al. (1964), viii.

[21] Ibid., v.

[22] Ibid. vi.

[23] von Franz wrote on “The Process of Individuation,” Henderson on “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,” Jaffé on “Symbols in the Visual Arts,” and Jacobi on “Symbols in an Individual Analysis,” all readable and informative essays.

[24] Edited by William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull; Jung (1977).

[25] E.g. Esther Harding, Elizabeth Osterman, Eleanor Bertine (students); Whit Burnett, Adolf Weizsäcker, H.R. Knickerbocker, Howard Philp, Peter Schmid, Pierre Courthion, Emil Fischer, Hans Carol, Claire Myers Owens, Frederick Sands, Stephen Black, Michael Schabad, Georg Gerster, Georges Duplain, John Freeman and Gordon Young (journalists).

[26] “Introduction,” Jung (1965), v.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Bair, (2003), 626.

[30] CW 10 ¶s589-824.

[31] E.g. to Aniela Jaffé’s book on Apparations (1957); to Michael Fordham’s New Developments in Analytical Psychology (1957); to Cornelia Bruner’s The Anima as a Problem in Man’s Fate (1959); and to Miguel Serrano’s The Visits of the Queen of Sheba (1960).

[32] For some of these letters, see Letters, II, 11, 13, 24, 39, 50, 52, 71, 79, 128, 129, 133, 139, 144, 155, 163, 208, 212, 225, 238, 244, 251, 254, 257, 267, 268, 334-336, 369, 391, 422, 434, 471, 482, 516, 518, 536, 544, 546, 552, 554, 566, 575, 581, 584, 603, 621, 625, 630.

[33] Bair (2003), 627.

[34] Ibid., 626.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] CW 10 ¶s 148-196.

[38] Ibid. ¶s 589-824.

[39] CW 4 ¶s 768-783.

[40] Ibid. ¶s 693-744.

[41] CW 8 ¶s 530-569.

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