The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Full disclosure -I suffer from depression. I take medication and participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I have tried to manage this depression unmedicated -I have exercised and ate ideally, and I’ve spent cumulative weeks and months living out of backpacks in the backcountry. I’ve meditated and even fought in amateur MMA. I have tried supplementation and nutritional remedies. None of this has been sufficient. I am in possession of the kind of brain that does not function well without pharmacological intervention. This is not something that reflects poorly on my value as a person, but, obviously, neither is it something I’m inherently pleased about. I am one of the luckier ones -my mood disorder responds well to a single frontline SSRI, at a relatively low dose that elicits few side effects. I do not need to keep in balance a constantly rotating program of disparate classes of drugs, and the medication I do take leaves me mostly unencumbered. It is off-patent, cheap, and easy for me to obtain -even if I were to lose my health insurance.  


The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is by far the best book I have read on the subject. Andrew Solomon is not only a competent and engaging writer, but a humblingly studious and thoughtful one. His prose is subtle and incisive, and the human empathy he brings to his work is made even more powerful by his own debilitating experiences with the disease. The kind of writing he has done here might be described as brutal were it not handled with such care. Every line has the feeling of meticulous editing and reworking, the kind of obsessive polishing that only very good source material can stand up to. This book is personal narrative and case study and sociology and advocacy writing and medical exposition and history. It comes at the topic of depression with the aim of encircling the vastness of it and its many practical concerns in a totally holistic fashion. The evolutionary impetus for the disease is addressed, as is the history of treatment. Many people of every imaginable experience are profiled, and the research for all contemporary methods of treatment are examined. Race, gender, sexuality and class are all considered at their points of influence. At over six hundred pages, the book seems like a daunting endeavor, and I took my time with it, but I can’t think of any part I would want to cut.


Depression is a mostly unseen epidemic, and because many of the deaths that it contributes to are so seemingly unconnected, it’s difficult to say how many people die as a result of their depression, beyond the most obvious examples. But the taboo against discussing it seems to be growing weaker all the time, and everything we can do to further weaken it makes it easier for people who cannot yet seek vital help. In that vein, Andrew Solomon’s work is both compelling on its own objective merits and on the imperative conversations it opens up.


Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets”

Maggie Nelson

“Bluets” is an essay written in short bursts, meditations in miniature on the color blue and all its Western connotations, on depression, on sex, on tranquility and recovery. Nelson delves into Goethe and Wittgenstein, both of whom wrote extensively on the color and the ideas behind it. She also dives into the world of visual art, looking at the medieval, impressionism, and the postmodern.

Nelson’s “bluets” vary from a few words to a few paragraphs, building beautifully on each other in a way that reminded me of the essays of Kundera -there is a much more interesting sense of understanding to be arrived at by the intricate latticework of “blueness” than by any isolated examination of the constituent parts. There is an interesting juxtaposition between philosophy’s inability to comment with effect on this kind of blueness (evidenced by Wittgenstein’s failure) and her own perceived limitations, set into relief by the breadth of the combined whole of blueness as an idea.

I feel as though my writing and talking about this book make it out to be a far more abstract thing than it actually is, but “Bluets” is deeply personal, narrative even, often taking the form of an address to an unknown (to us) lost lover, or as a journal entry about a friend, recently quadriplegic. “Bluets” is a constructed recreation of a mind at work, a mind rotating a very wide but specific idea and contextualizing its experiences within it.

Recommendation: Read it. It’s short, it’s an easy read, and it’s fascinating.

The Grapes of Wrath and the Journals Behind the Book

Image via The Guardian

The Grapes of Wrath is another one of those American classics that I somehow avoided reading in high school. Getting to read all of these canonical tomes as an adult has, thus far, not proved to be a disappointment. The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkable timeless piece of work, relevant as ever in 2015. And the direct prose, seasoned with occasional King James Bible lyricism, reads as well as ever.

Not that readers need some guy on the internet to tell them that this book is good. But a less obvious suggestion than “I also think that this thing that everyone thinks is good, is good” that I highly recommend, especially for writers, is reading “Working Days: A Journal Of The Grapes Of Wrath”. This collection of journals that Steinbeck kept during the process of writing this novel centers around the daily log he kept, in which he made an entry every day he wrote. It also contains the journal entries he made during editing and the process of publication, as well as extensive endnotes and background information by scholar Robert DeMott. While the information text and later entries are interesting, the central “working days” journal is definitely the highlight. It’s fascinating to see just how much sheer work goes into the process of great writing -not magical inspiration, but a grinding amount of man-hours and forced effort. It does a great job of cutting through lots of the romantic bullshit that gets heaped on great creators.

The process of creating good art is work. It’s also often full of brutalizing self-doubt, anxiety, and a fleeting certainty that you are actually no good, that you are a pretender, and that your big project is a crock of worthless shit and that anyone with a shred of perception will see the truth and call you out. And creation can veer into grandiosity, your unshakable self-important knowledge that this is a great work, a future masterpiece, something that will make everyone stop being evil and sit and feel and understand. Steinbeck, writing for himself as an act of creative discipline, shows every foible and every swing in the process of deep, involved writing. It’s good to know that you aren’t alone in your insanity.

Recommendation: Read the canon, of course. And if you are any kind of creative laborer, read the journals, too. 

Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”

Steinbeck’s prose has never been -for me, at least- so strong a thing as to recommend his writing to me in and of itself. Fortunately, the man is a compelling teller of stories. His characters are often marginalized, the victims of an institutionalized discrimination that leaves them to struggle heroically, but helplessly, against the forces of their doom. Because of the markedly higher stakes, I’ve always found myself drawn to the well-told stories of the disenfranchised. “Of Mice and Men” was published in 1937 -obviously a work that far predates literary favored sons like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. Perhaps Steinbeck is glanced over in more prestigious literary circles in this regard for the sin of being incredibly common on high school required reading lists?

Regardless, I loved reading this book. I had somehow missed out on it in high school myself (although I’m certain Young Sean would have loved it) but reading it now, as an adult with formal education in literature and a hell of a lot of damn good books behind me is an equally rewarding experience. I felt the same way about reading Moby-Dick for the first time last year. “Of Mice and Men” is not dependent upon the green-reading nature of an indentured teenaged audience -it’s a powerful and enduring work. Neither is it dependent on plot and surprise -I knew the events of the story before reading it and I felt my reading experience was improved for it (but I’m not really a “spoiler guy” so take that with a grain of salt if you tend to get personally invested in your clean mental pallette).

Recommendation: Read it. Read it again if it’s been a few years. It will be a short and enjoyable revisit.