The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression by Andrew Solomon

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The Noonday Demon

Five words from the blurb: depression, research, history, society, recovery

Earlier this year I read Far From the Tree, an outstanding book that made me look at the world in a new light. Keen to repeat the experience I found Andrew Solomon’s earlier book, The Noonday Demon, and am pleased to report that it is equally insightful.

The Noonday Demon is a thorough examination of depression. Taking different areas in turn it looks at everything from the politics surrounding mental health; through medications used to treat the condition; to reasons the human brain might have evolved to include depression. Throughout the book there are personal stories that bring the subject to life, giving the reader a deep empathy for those who are suffering.

This isn’t a book for those with depression, although they’ll probably benefit from reading it, but as 25% of the population suffer from mental health problems this book is relevant to our whole society. It raises many issues, some of which are controversial, but all are discussed in an intelligent and thought provoking way. Everyone will be able to relate to the deep sadness brought on by grief and this book explains why some people will have to endure this experience for other, sometimes unknown, reasons. 

In Far From the Tree Solomon showed that disability and difference can be viewed in a positive light. In The Noonday Demon he shows how depression can also be viewed in the same way. Those who come out of a depressive episode have more empathy for others and a greater ability to find pleasure in the simple things in life. 

On the happy day when we lose depression, we will lose a great deal with it. If the earth could feed itself and us without rain, and if we conquered the weather and declared permanent sun, would we not miss grey days and summer storms? As the sun seems brighter and more clear when it comes on a rare day of English summer after ten months of dismal skies than it can ever seem in the tropics, so recent happiness feels enormous and embracing and beyond anything I have ever imagined.

The author shared his personal experiences and this insight added a painful authenticity to the text. I found the section in which the author talked about the assisted suicide of his terminally ill mother particularly striking. 

If you have never tried it yourself or helped someone else through it, you cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to kill yourself. If death were a passive thing, which occurred to those who couldn’t be bothered to resist it, and if life were an active thing, which continued only by virtue of a daily commitment to it, then the world’s problem would be depopulation and not overpopulation.

My only minor quibble is that the statistics tended to focus on the US. The plight of the poor without medical insurance was heartbreaking to read, but I would like to know the limitations of the UK system and how other countries cope. I also found the chapter on medications a bit boring. I’m sure it will be of great use to those on these drugs, but I found the detail of doses and side effects hard to get through.

Overall this is a masterpiece of research. It made me look at mental health in a new light and I highly recommend it to everyone.

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14 Comments

  1. I read this when it was first released and thought it was powerful. This author knows how to write about tough subjects.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I’ve just realised that Andrew Solomon is the first author ever to get two five star reviews from me. I guess that means he is now my favourite author! He is such a powerful writer and will now read all his books. Glad you enjoyed it too!

  2. Violet says:

    I’ve never been able to finish this book because it’s just too close to the bone. I’ve had episodes of depression since I was in my late teens and in recent years have chosen to speak out about it in an attempt to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and hopefully, to lessen the feelings of self-blame and shame about being mentally ill. I’m glad you found the book insightful and helpful. This was one of the set texts for the MA I started this year, but I quit studying because reading about depression just made me feel terribly depressed. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I totally understand why you found this book hard to read. I hope that I can at least persuade a few people to read it so that they understand what you are going through and have a little more tolerance. Best wishes for the future!

  3. Heather says:

    I just saw Andrew Solomon on the Cobert Report, and now I want to read all his books. I already had Far from the Tree on my list because of your review, but I will definitely be reading this one, too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Heather, It is great to hear that both books are on your wishlist. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

  4. I bought and tried to read this when it was first published too, but like Violet I could only get so far with it because it is something too close to home, and it is very hard to read it and take it in properly when you are depressed, even though you want to, to help yourself. I’m so glad that you read it and got a lot out of it though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lindsay, I hope that one day you’ll be able to read it. It is interesting that you managed to read The View from the Way Down, which I had been putting off due to imagining it to be a difficult read emotionally. I look forward to comparing the two.

      1. I put off reading The View on the Way Down for several months as I was scared about how upsetting it might be. It was upsetting and had a big effect on my emotions but I am glad that I’ve read it.

        1. Jackie says:

          Lindsay, I’ve moved it up the TBR pile and look forward to reading it soon. I do like books with an emotional impact :-)

  5. I still have Far From The Tree reserved with the library but this looks like a great follow up once that one finally arrives and I’ve read it. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, It is good to know you have Far From the Tree reserved. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. John Braine says:

    I’m curious if you read a recently updated edition. I’ve been meaning to catch up on some mental health reading, so this looked perfect at first. But it’s over a decade since it was written, which seems like eons in the ever-changing landscape of mental health.

    Far From the Tree has been on my list but I’m a bit scared by the length to be honest. I haven’t fared too well with lenghty books on similar topics. I started well with the Emperor of all Maladies but it turned into a painful slog to the end. (Well… “painful” might be an insensitive way of putting it, all things considered).

    1. Jackie says:

      John, That is a very interesting point! I’ve just checked and my copy hasn’t been updated. It is the edition published in 2001. I’m sure the medications have changed in that decade, but I didn’t have much interest in that chapter anyway. I still think this is well worth reading as it is the attitudes that interested me. The personal stories and the emotional insight fascinated me and those aspects will be just as relevant today.

      I’m afraid I haven’t read The Emperor of Maladies (although I want to) so I can’t compare the two books, but I’d urge you to try Far from the Tree. It isn’t a book that needs to be read in one go – in fact it is probably better if you dip into it and read individual chapters at a time.

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