Thursday, July 31, 2008

Charles Barber's "Comfortably Numb"

Charles Barber was educated at Harvard and Columbia and worked for ten years in New York City shelters for the homeless mentally ill. The title essay of his first book, Songs from the Black Chair, won a 2006 Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Scientific American Mind, among other publications, and on NPR. He is a senior administrator at The Connection, an innovative social services agency, and a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation, and reported the following:
Here is the entirety of page 99. As it happens, it is a short page, perhaps the shortest page in the book, as it ends a chapter.

The text:

What does this say about us? What does it say about how we, as a culture, live now and how we choose to solve problems? What does it say about how we view our emotions? Why does it say about our psyches, and our souls? In other words, why did it happen?

I suspect the answer has something to do with misery.

The "it" I am referring to is the astonishing rate of usage of antidepressant prescriptions in the U.S. In 2007, more than 230 millions prescriptions were written, more than any other class of medication.

And the last sentence -- "something to do with misery" -- leads to the next chapter, "American Misery," which is about social dislocation and disconnection in contemporary America.

So p. 99 is not exactly representative of my book -- it is more of a bridging device.

But I like my page 99, and am happy that it is my book's representative in this little exercise. I like to think that there is something soothingly modest and a little refreshing about a page that is largely involved with exploratory questions, and then merely suggests an answer to those questions. In other words: this is all for your consideration.

For me, the best books raise and explore issues, but don't settle them.
Read an excerpt from Comfortably Numb, and learn more about the book and author at Charles Barber's website.

--Marshal Zeringue