Ordinary Madness

Kate Summerscale on the fixations and fears that make us human

Courtesy Penguin Books
Courtesy Penguin Books

There are so many things to fear in this world—water, choking, dark forests—and an equal number of things to obsess over—books, grief, things themselves. In The Book of Phobias and Manias, Kate Summerscale collects 99 such fixations, from the fanciful (hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, a fear of long words) to the debilitatingly real (acrophobia, a fear of heights). No matter if dressed in Greek clothing (koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons) or bluntly named (social phobia), these obsessions account for many of today’s most common anxiety disorders. But Summerscale’s case studies, spanning 14th-century France to the contemporary psychology lab, reveal that our obsessions’ historical origins—and our fervor for categorizing our differences—tell us an awful lot more about modernity than our evolutionary past.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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