Sunday, August 7, 2016

Mount TBR #36

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Going Crazy: An Inquiry into Madness in Our Time - Otto Friedrich

Fans of classic movies put Otto Friedrich’s survey City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s on their lists of best books about Tinsel Town. It’s one of the few books I regret giving away after I read it since I’d now like to have it around for the sake of dipping into its stories about actors and writers as well as the likes of – in order of least to most corrupt - movie producers, reporters, gangsters, and politicians. I also remember it was informative about emigres who escaped Nazified Europe, such Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner, Billy Wilder, and Peter Lorre.

This lesser-known book has not been returned to print like many of his other books and not even acknowledged on the website When the book was published in the mid-1970s, critics castigated the book for its lack of focus, lack of an overarching view,  lack of definitions or theoretical framework. Admitting in the introduction and conclusion that he doesn't have the high-level answers, journalist and editor Friedrich doesn’t want to be pinned down, thus he chose the broad word “crazy” for the title.

Like City of Nets, the survey Going Crazy is indeed an attic stuffed to bursting of a book. We read anecdotes of madness and alcohol, madness and love, and madness and stress. We read with fascination stories of famous breakdowns concerning King Lear, Joe Louis, Mark Vonnegut, Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Nixon.  Here and there are short essays on madness and creative endeavor with the focus on the son of Charles Mingus, Robert Schumann, Scott Joplin, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Marquis de Sade. There’s an interesting piece on the confluence of crime and madness with an accent on how the Soviets used mental hospitals to oppress dissidents like Zhores Medvedev. Friedrich expresses a healthy skepticism of R. D. Laing and psychiatry in general and reminds us that the theories of Sigmund Freud had much more influence than we can believe nowadays. He even focuses on narrow groups for their higher than average propensity for craziness, like chess players (Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer), poets (Ezra Pound), and Harvard alumni. The stories of George III, Timothy Leary, and Eldridge Cleaver are terribly sad.

I have mentioned only a small number here; many more stories feature ordinary people (“a guy named Harry”) and their bouts with mental illness. In the conclusion he makes a point of saying, 30% of those of us who break down get better with meds, 30% with counseling, and 30% on our own, with time as the healing agent. This is somehow comforting, that getting better breaks down 30-30-30 like a lot of situations in life that will change sooner, change later, stay about the same.

Upon graduation from Harvard (bachelors in history) in the late 1940s, Friedrich became a journalist, eventually becoming the managing editor of The Saturday Evening Post in 1965. In the late Sixties, the Post had to put up the shutters during the great weekly magazine shut down that saw Look and Life close up shop. After that, he wrote a book about the painful process of the Post’s closing down in Decline and Fall, which awaits in my TBR stack because I like sad stories by media insiders. He spent the remainder of his career at Time magazine. As a journalist first and foremost, Friedrich’s goal in writing was to inform thinking readers about topics of interest in a stimulating way.

So, I think if a reader wants to expand her general cultural knowledge, this readable book is an exciting if serious place to explore. But it can’t be called a book that one can just read through, unless one is true hardcore reader – like me – and probably you too - if you have found yourself reading this blog,

Stay steady.

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