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Review of "Exuberance"

By Kay Redfield Jamison
Knopf, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 28th 2005

Kay Redfield Jamison is best known for her memoir An Unquiet Mind, her work on the relationship between manic depression and creativity as set out in her book Touched with Fire, and more recently for her powerful book on suicide, Night Falls Fast. She is very often a compelling writer, an eloquent representative of the mentally ill, and occasionally an inspirational thinker. When she became a John P. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow (the "genius award"), it seemed that she deserved it. So it is rather surprising to find that her new book, Exuberance, is so utterly dull that it is practically unreadable. I found that even when listening to it as an audiobook, I could not even generate the enthusiasm to hear out the second half of the book and instead flipped the pages of the hardback searching for some good points, but without success.

The central aim of Exuberance is to explore many examples of the passion for life and different ways of understanding it. The problem with the book is that it has no main thesis, unless it is that we should acknowledge the importance of exuberance. Jamison's method is to flit from topic to topic in each chapter, and the chapters themselves tend to have minimal thematic unity. The book has no introduction and the chapters have no sections. The chapter titles are all quoted phrases, giving the book a rather self-important air.

Consider chapter four, "The Glowing Hours." Apparently it is about childhood exuberance, although Jamison never explicitly tells the reader this. The chapter starts with the following paragraph.

Always childhood ends. Nearly always, the unrestrained exuberance of youth ends with it. The kite is wound in, wonder shades into familiarity, and the skipping stops. Restraint accrues slowly, giving way to greater sophistication and savoir-faire. Childhood enthusiasm forfeits a portion of its charm: more and more it is to be dampened or subtly honed, kept to oneself, remolded into more worldly imitations of pleasure. The rising expectations of life exact a toll from the young as they are obliged to face them. (pages 66-7).

On the back cover, the rent-a-quote crown gushes about Jamison's wonderful style -- Anthonio Damasio refers to her "lyrical stream" and Matt Ridley praises her "literary elegance." Yet my reaction to her words is that her writing is studied and stilted, sounding as if it were translated from German. Jamison proceeds, after more pontificating, to discuss some children's authors, and then focuses on the figures of Toad in The Wind in the Willows and the figure of Tigger in the Winnie-the-Pooh story The House at Pooh Corner. She goes on to mention Mary Poppins, Snoopy in Peanuts, and Peter Pan. By the end of the chapter, it seems that she has discussed many ideas but not attempted to argue for anything more significant than the fact that children often have lots of enthusiasm, a point that surely we would have agreed with at the start.

Through each chapter, readers are likely to be asking themselves "where is this all leading?" Some chapters meander more than others, and tangential ideas are loosely connected together. Jamison discusses great writers, great scientists, passionate collectors, and people with strong religious feelings, among others, and makes comparisons as she goes. While the book is carefully researched, and has 70 pages of notes at the end as proof, it nevertheless often seems like a stream of consciousness. Listening to the audiobook is a little like being sat next to a blowhard talking incessantly at a dinner party, and you may find yourself soon looking around to find a different conversational partner.

I feel a little apprehensive and even guilty in coming to such a negative conclusion about this book, and I wonder whether exuberant people may delight in it as much as I detested it. I like linear thinking and clear arguments, and Jamison bounces from idea to idea, explaining in passing that great thinkers refuse to be bound by conventional thought. So my apprehension stems from a worry that if Jamison is correct, my dislike of her book is a sign of my own limitations. And maybe this is so. It is not hard to imagine that some readers will love this book for its broad-ranging approach and its enthusiasm. What is more, Jamison has done a valuable service in highlighting the role that exuberance plays in propelling some scientists and explorers along in their work when facing obstacles.

Nevertheless, I cannot see much here that is particularly original or even insightful. Most of Jamison's observations are rather obvious and are set out by other biographers and psychologists. I'm not even sure what reason there is to think that as a culture generally we have neglected the importance of exuberance. After all, Americans are brought up on the premise that life is the pursuit of happiness, and as a society we encourage people to develop their own passions, hobbies, sports and artistic endeavors. Maybe in the academic and professional worlds, training pays too much attention to testing, assessment and conformity to general standards, and this squashes the exuberance of individuals, but that is a claim that would need to be supported more, and Jamison does not take that as her task. So I maintain my unhappy and almost paradoxical conclusion that despite her topic, Exuberance is unexciting.


2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.