Kate Summerscale’s new book, The Book of Phobias and Manias, examines the history of the world through 99 obsessions. It’s a beautifully designed little tome, complete with illustrations, part of the Wellcome Collection from Profile Books – they were kind enough to send me a copy (via Allen & Unwin) for review.
“We are all driven by our fears and desires,” Summerscale says in the introduction to The Book of Phobias and Manias, and her particular interest is in fears and desires that cross the boundary into ‘obsession’. Phobias and manias mark our cultural boundaries for what is “normal” or reasonable, so they make for a particularly interesting lens through which to examine our collective history.
Take, for instance, an obsession with handwashing driven by mysophobia (more commonly called ‘germophobia’ in my part of the world). Mysophobics fear contamination and infection, and they’ll wash their hands repeatedly and wear masks in public. Up until a couple of years ago, that would have been out of the norm – but the COVID-19 pandemic radically changed our boundaries for a “normal” preoccupation with hand hygiene and airborne viruses. COVID-19 it would seem has also increased our collective susceptibility to fear of crowds and outdoor spaces, as Summerscale covers in the agoraphobia section of The Book of Phobias and Manias. Phobias and manias aren’t just manifestations of our personal anxieties – they’re cultural creations, and social constructions. Cool, eh?
Unfortunately, one of my own personal quirks (‘bovinophobia’ or ‘taurophobia’ – I really, really don’t like being around cows) didn’t rate a specific mention. Bibliomania did, though, which was – of course – a highlight. The history of homophobia was also particularly interesting.
Recent estimates suggest that only 1 in 8 people with a phobia seek help, so I think it was really great of Summerscale to wisely include many comforting examples of people who have undertaken treatment with great success.
The Book of Phobias and Manias is a really interesting read – though you might have to resist the urge to start pathologising every inclination or distaste once you’ve read it.
Buy The Book Of Phobias And Manias on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)