The Book Club

Reading About Depression Without Having Been Depressed

Greetings Chris,

Thanks once again for an admirable summary and appraisal of the book. “Once again” refers to the similar service you did a few weeks ago, on what in retrospect seems quite a similar book: Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club. The similarity to Noonday Demon is that both are big, thick works; both drip with erudition (academic in Menand’s case, more reportorial with Solomon); both are carefully written line by line but proceed in meandering rather than relentlessly linear fashion. And both are worth the journey.

I thought this book was a little more sprawling than you apparently do, especially the first half. I actually read Anatomy of Melancholy years ago, when I imagined I had all the time in the world to plow through obscure tomelike classics, and I think it is a direct precursor to this book. I agree with you about some of the preening sides of himself Andrew Solomon seems to reveal. This may seem a totally bizarre complaint to make. After all, he matter of factly describes what would ordinarily be the most humiliating and terrible details as part of the portrait of his illness. Yet still, as you say, he can sound vain or precious about certain talents and refinements.

Nonetheless, this is a memorable, gripping book. I expect it to be a huge success–mainly because of its intrinsic merits, additionally because the Big Book machine is obviously being revved up (fancy readers’ copies, and so on), but also because of the immediacy of the subject matter for a large number of readers. Which brings me to the first of several points that, in hopes of brevity, I’ll make check-list style rather than trying to connect normally.

  • First, I think you and I should be frank about the way our reaction may differ from that of many likely readers. I gather from your note that you’ve suffered nothing like the syndromes Solomon describes. Nor have I–though I have close friends who have, and if Solomon’s statistics are correct, you probably do, too. We are, therefore, likely to “appreciate” or “learn from” this book, rather than devour it or live it the way people grappling with depression certainly will. Readers should judge our comments in that light.
    Not to trivialize the point, but: Reading the book reminded me of happening upon Reader’s Digest descriptions of obscure diseases when I was a child and being sure I was catching them myself. I read the story of a high-school football star who noticed a tingling in his fingers–and six months later, he’d lost his hand to leprosy! Hey, aren’t my fingers feeling tingly, too? Only at the very end of the book, in a beautiful passage, does Solomon distinguish “routine” feelings of loss and despair from the beginning of depressive event:   

    Even those who do not suffer from depression have blue moods sometimes, when little things seem to be full of reminders of mortality, when those who are gone or those times that are gone are missed suddenly and profoundly, when the simple fact that we exist in a transient world seems paralyzingly sad.
    Again, while we discuss this as reportage and analysis–and while some experts will no doubt dispute it as policy–I know that many readers will rush to it for tips on alternative therapies, for information about drugs, simply for solace.
  • The book is full of unforgettable set pieces. You rightly mention his mother’s suicide, to which we will return. On the talk show circuit, he has been describing the period in which, he says, he deliberately tried to get AIDS so he would have a “respectable” reason to kill himself. It will be a very long time before I forget an out-of-nowhere episode in West Africa, where Solomon goes to get a spiritual purging called an ndeup. He lies beneath blankets embracing a live ram, he watches the ram get slaughtered (some chickens die, too), he is coated with animal blood till it dries on him in clots and cakes–and then he is washed clean by women spitting water on him. I would find this unbelievable, except the magic of the Web backs the story up. (These sites from Senegal–click here and here–where Solomon went are in French but do back up his story. I should note that the photos don’t depict the ram or a person covered in dried blood.)
  • I have a few questions about the reportorial technique in the book, epitomized by the bizarre visit to the Inuit. (“The Inuit are in my experience kind people,” and so on.) I’ll save those for later. For now, I agree with you that the “pointlessness” of the book is a tremendous virtue. Countless nonfiction books seem to be reduced to debating props, to support one side or another of a Crossfire-style exchange. The book is “about” all aspects of depression without limiting itself to a case for or against a certain drug, etiology, treatment, etc. Suppose we had to reduce its message to talk show form. My nominee would be: Almost any combination of factors can bring on depression–genetic predisposition, childhood trauma, world-historic tragedy (like the Holocaust), poverty, injury, addiction. And anything that makes patients feel better, from pharmaceuticals to “cheer up” philosophies, should be welcomed as a palliative though not a cure.
  • One final thought. Solomon emphasizes the months and years in which he did not work. He recalls in minute detail the stages of despair, collapse, listlessness, and enervation he went through during his depressions. Did you ever wonder: How did he take notes on all this? How does he remember? How did he get this enormous book done? Just curious–and respectful of the effort that created the book.

Back to you,