Kay Redfield Jamison is best known
for her memoir An Unquiet Mind, her work on the relationship between
manic depression and creativity as set out in her book Touched with Fire,
and more recently for her powerful book on suicide, Night Falls Fast.
She is very often a compelling writer, an eloquent representative of the
mentally ill, and occasionally an inspirational thinker. When she became a
John P. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow (the "genius award"), it
seemed that she deserved it. So it is rather surprising to find that her new
book, Exuberance, is so utterly dull that it is practically unreadable.
I found that even when listening to it as an audiobook, I could not even
generate the enthusiasm to hear out the second half of the book and instead
flipped the pages of the hardback searching for some good points, but without
The central aim of Exuberance
is to explore many examples of the passion for life and different ways of
understanding it. The problem with the book is that it has no main thesis,
unless it is that we should acknowledge the importance of exuberance.
Jamison's method is to flit from topic to topic in each chapter, and the chapters
themselves tend to have minimal thematic unity. The book has no introduction
and the chapters have no sections. The chapter titles are all quoted phrases,
giving the book a rather self-important air.
Consider chapter four, "The
Glowing Hours." Apparently it is about childhood exuberance, although
Jamison never explicitly tells the reader this. The chapter starts with the
Always childhood ends. Nearly always, the
unrestrained exuberance of youth ends with it. The kite is wound in, wonder
shades into familiarity, and the skipping stops. Restraint accrues slowly,
giving way to greater sophistication and savoir-faire. Childhood enthusiasm
forfeits a portion of its charm: more and more it is to be dampened or subtly
honed, kept to oneself, remolded into more worldly imitations of pleasure. The
rising expectations of life exact a toll from the young as they are obliged to
face them. (pages 66-7).
On the back cover, the rent-a-quote crown gushes about
Jamison's wonderful style -- Anthonio Damasio refers to her "lyrical
stream" and Matt Ridley praises her "literary elegance." Yet my
reaction to her words is that her writing is studied and stilted, sounding as
if it were translated from German. Jamison proceeds, after more pontificating,
to discuss some children's authors, and then focuses on the figures of Toad in The
Wind in the Willows and the figure of Tigger in the Winnie-the-Pooh story The
House at Pooh Corner. She goes on to mention Mary Poppins, Snoopy in Peanuts,
and Peter Pan. By the end of the chapter, it seems that she has
discussed many ideas but not attempted to argue for anything more significant
than the fact that children often have lots of enthusiasm, a point that surely
we would have agreed with at the start.
Through each chapter, readers are
likely to be asking themselves "where is this all leading?" Some
chapters meander more than others, and tangential ideas are loosely connected
together. Jamison discusses great writers, great scientists, passionate collectors,
and people with strong religious feelings, among others, and makes comparisons
as she goes. While the book is carefully researched, and has 70 pages of notes
at the end as proof, it nevertheless often seems like a stream of
consciousness. Listening to the audiobook is a little like being sat next to a
blowhard talking incessantly at a dinner party, and you may find yourself soon
looking around to find a different conversational partner.
I feel a little apprehensive and
even guilty in coming to such a negative conclusion about this book, and I
wonder whether exuberant people may delight in it as much as I detested it. I
like linear thinking and clear arguments, and Jamison bounces from idea to
idea, explaining in passing that great thinkers refuse to be bound by
conventional thought. So my apprehension stems from a worry that if Jamison is
correct, my dislike of her book is a sign of my own limitations. And maybe
this is so. It is not hard to imagine that some readers will love this book
for its broad-ranging approach and its enthusiasm. What is more, Jamison has
done a valuable service in highlighting the role that exuberance plays in
propelling some scientists and explorers along in their work when facing
Nevertheless, I cannot see much
here that is particularly original or even insightful. Most of Jamison's
observations are rather obvious and are set out by other biographers and
psychologists. I'm not even sure what reason there is to think that as a
culture generally we have neglected the importance of exuberance. After all,
Americans are brought up on the premise that life is the pursuit of happiness,
and as a society we encourage people to develop their own passions, hobbies,
sports and artistic endeavors. Maybe in the academic and professional worlds,
training pays too much attention to testing, assessment and conformity to
general standards, and this squashes the exuberance of individuals, but that is
a claim that would need to be supported more, and Jamison does not take that as
her task. So I maintain my unhappy and almost paradoxical conclusion that
despite her topic, Exuberance is unexciting.
© 2005 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.