The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes - Frank Bures

It is interesting in subject matter, literally about penis thieves as the title says, but as you may imagine, no actual penises are (permanently) stolen. It segues into how the organ theft is very real to the people who experience it and those around them who believe it's happening, but completely imaginary to anyone else around them who don't have the same culture beliefs. The book goes on to describe other culture-bound syndromes and does a pretty good job at breaking down the predisposition to thinking these things only happen in "less civilized" or "less educated" countries, even though that is reiterated frequently by the medical professionals as to why the incidences keep occurring. Notably, the author points out how PMS is almost exclusively an American problem for women, or other American or Western "diseases" like anorexia or pet hoarding that do not exist in our cultural opposites, yet no one would say that the Western world lacks in civilization or culture. (Debatable.)


He mentions the change in understanding and societal perception of, for example, depression as being something mental (and shameful) to something physical (and suddenly curable) and the case studies in the placebo effect. There is the historical precedent of fugue:

Hacking suggests that fugue and other conditions can flourish in a place and time because the right conditions exist in the same way that ecological conditions allow certain species to arise... When those conditions change, the animals die out. In the late 1800s, a niche opened up in Europe to allow fugue to arise, and then it was gone. As a kind of resolution of the dichotomy, Hacking has proposed the term “bioloop” to describe the process by which our ideas and beliefs affect our physiology, and our physiology in turn affects our minds.

The information and suggested analysis is well-written, but the book could easily have been half its present length and made a stronger, more concise argument. However, that is not the author's writing style. A good chunk of the unnecessary writing is about his struggling writing career or the mundane details of his travels to track down information about the phenomena, even including accounts of dead ends that could have been excised from the final copy of the book for pacing reasons. I don't care that you tried the local recipe of chicken in some mid-sized town in China and found it subpar; just tell me about the darned subject of your book.


Solid three, overall.