The best books for rethinking the line between sanity and madness

Who am I?

I’ve spent the last decade researching and writing about mental illness and how it manifests in different cultures. My research has led me to archives in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where I’ve uncovered documents from the earliest Chinese-managed asylums and psychopathic hospitals – documents that give rare glimpses into what it was like to have been mentally ill in China at the turn of the twentieth century. My book, The Invention of Madness, is the first monographic study of mental illness in China in the modern period.


I wrote...

The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China

By Emily Baum,

Book cover of The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China

What is my book about?

Prior to the twentieth century, madness wasn’t considered a discrete condition in China, and specialized institutions like asylums did not exist. Western missionaries and physicians tried to change that. This book traces the evolution of “madness” in modern China, showing how it was eventually transformed in the Chinese imagination into “mental illness”.

Examining how different social actors, including the police, Chinese medicine doctors, and government bureaucrats, tackled the problem of insanity throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, The Invention of Madness grapples with what it meant to be mad in a China undergoing rapid social change and political upheaval.

The books I picked & why

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Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine

By Andrew Scull,

Book cover of Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine

Why this book?

Although Madhouse reads like a Stephen King novel, everything it recounts is actually true. At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Cotton, a psychiatrist and the medical director of the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton, thought he had found the solution to mental illness. His unconventional approach to treatment, however, left more people dead and disfigured than effectively cured. Andrew Scull’s deeply-researched narrative of Cotton’s medical interventions is a horrifying, yet entirely gripping, account of the lengths people have gone in the name of psychiatric treatment.


Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates

By Erving Goffman,

Book cover of Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates

Why this book?

This classic account by a renowned sociologist is critical reading for those interested in the anti-psychiatry movement, a crusade that viewed psychiatry as more coercive than therapeutic and, in some cases, questioned the reality of mental illness itself. For one year, Goffman embedded himself in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, DC, where he ultimately concluded that the defining features of the asylum – similar to those of prisons and other “total institutions” – did more to shape the patient’s behavior than the supposed illness for which the patient had been admitted in the first place. Goffman’s observations left a significant impact on popular ideas about asylum care and helped contribute to widespread deinstitutionalization several decades later.


The Yellow Wallpaper

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

Book cover of The Yellow Wallpaper

Why this book?

This is a quick read, but it’s one that will leave an impression. A young woman, suffering from a malady described as a “temporary nervous depression,” is instructed by her husband to get into bed – and stay there until she has recovered. This was the famous “rest cure” touted by early twentieth-century physicians as the solution to all manner of women’s psychological maladies. As Gilman skillfully narrates in this fictional tale, the rest cure was not all it was chalked up to be. By the end of the story, the protagonist isn’t sure what’s real and what she’s simply conjured up. It’s a tale that will make the reader question the boundaries between sanity and unreason, particularly for headstrong women living in a patriarchal world.


Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

By Ethan Watters,

Book cover of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Why this book?

Fast food and popular culture aren’t the only things that Americans have exported overseas, journalist Ethan Watters claims in this fast-paced and easily readable book. Recently, the American mental health profession has also begun exporting its own understanding of mental illness. Through four case studies examining anorexia in Hong Kong, PTSD in Sri Lanka, schizophrenia in Zanzibar, and depression in Japan, Watters argues that the world is flattening through the global homogenization of mental disorders and their treatment. It’s a fascinating look into an overlooked aspect of the American psychiatric profession, one that will leave readers wondering if our own approach to mental illness is the best one out there – and if it’s perhaps creating more problems than it’s solving. 


The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

By Barbara Taylor,

Book cover of The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

Why this book?

Ever since the anti-psychiatry movement began in the 1960s, the asylum has gotten a pretty bad rap (think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book I would have recommended had I been given a sixth choice!). Barbara Taylor’s brave memoir brings an unexpectedly positive reassessment of an institution where she spent several years of her life: Friern Mental Hospital, also known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. After experiencing severe anxiety, Taylor was admitted to Friern in 1988 where she found a meaningful community and therapeutic support network before the hospital was dismantled in the early 1990s. The ultimate erosion of the asylum system, Taylor contends, left patients like her with few places to turn for long-term care and support.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental disorders, psychiatric hospitals, and psychiatry?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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