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Just the kind of thing you might find in a library book sale

August 10, 2015

I just finished an impressive novel from 1979, “Offshore,” by Penelope Fitzgerald, for which she won the Booker Prize. Fitzgerald started her literary career in 1975 at age 58. The novel is impressive for being smart, efficient, witty, exotic (most of the characters live on barges along the Thames), and short but full.

This is just the kind of thing you might find in a library book sale. And wouldn’t you know it—the library is having a book sale Saturday. That’s right. A back-to-school sale instead of the usual Halloween sale.

The allotted space in the library basement is filling up, and there’s no way we’ll make it until the end of October. So make a note-to-self: this Saturday, August 15, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the library.

In the sale, I’ve spotted books such as the specialized cookbook “First Meals” (better than Last Meals) and “No salt, no sugar, no fat” (yum). There’s “50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know” (with a bargain price sticker) and “How to Know God” (take her out for tea) and “The Geometry of Love” (I’m guessing a triangle).

I’m also recently done with a new book from 2015, which is not to say I finished it. It’s a fat book, which is par for the course for history lovers: “Madness in Civilization: From the Bible to Freud, from the madhouse to modern medicine” by Andrew Scull, a professor of sociology and science studies at UC-San Diego.

It’s a fascinating topic. The introduction begins on the cover: “From the eighteenth century onwards, it had become commonplace to see nervous illnesses of a milder sort as part of the price one paid for civilization … Insanity, alienists and their allies argued, was disease of civilization and of the civilized.”

Which is not to say our responses to it were always civilized. The history of lobotomies is worse than one might imagine from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The author’s narrative is perhaps properly distant, as the work of an historian, but it’s easy to imagine vividly these scenes from operating rooms to asylums across the centuries.

When the first American lobotomists worked, neurosurgeon James Watts performed surgery while neurologist Walter Freeman asked questions of the patient and kept transcripts of the replies (so as to judge when to stop cutting brain tissue).

In one transcript, Freeman asked the patient what was passing through his mind, and after a pause, the patient said, “A knife.” It’s hard to imagine oneself in the patient’s place.

The author ends by predicting that madness will not, in the end, prove to be reducible solely to biology and the body—a position largely held in modern medicine. “The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness in civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away … Madness remains a fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself.”

It’s also hard to imagine our civilization changing in ways that reduce the causes of madness, even if we knew exactly what they were. There are an amazing number of us on the planet, and we’ve never been so closely connected.

Madness may be the proper response. We were given dominion over the Earth and proceeded to eliminate most of our natural predators and competition, so that now we compete only with ourselves.

The options for “dropping out” diminish generation by generation. This prospect alone might be enough to drive one crazy.

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