Since it is Non-Fiction November, I thought I would make a list of non-fiction book recommendations on some of my favourite subjects to explore – the human mind, mental illness and psychiatry. Even though some of the books below border academic and are dated, they still reman very insightful. Some of them were also initially seminal works that opened a new way of thinking about the topic. This list is in no particular order.
I. Asylums  by Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) is considered to be “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century”. His work Asylums is a compelling study on mental institutions, in particular, which he terms “total institutions” since, in his view, they insist on certain patterns of behaviour making people inside to conform to certain roles, such as “guards” or “captors”. This is a thought-provoking book which gave way to the whole new theory behind the confinement of mentally ill.
II. History of Melancholy [2009/2011] by Karin Johannisson
History of Melancholy talks about melancholic feelings throughout history – how people viewed melancholy and what forms it took through the ages. It has always been my favourite book on the subject, because it dips into history, literature, psychology and modern psychiatry. It also talks about fugue states, amnesia, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue, emphasising how people were diagnosed with that or this illness depending which one of them was also “in vogue” at that time. I read this book translated (from Swedish) to Russian, and I am not sure whether it is available in the English translation.
III. History of Madness [1961/2006] by Michel Foucault
This monumental work by Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), a French philosopher, examines madness throughout history, starting in the Middle Ages (the confinement of lepers) and finishing in the eighteenth century (the “revolutions” in psychiatry). Paying attention to the past psychiatric practices and methods, the author shows how madness was perceived through the prisms of culture, law, politics, philosophy and medicine, while putting his own ideas forward on the representation and meaning of madness.
IV. Hallucinations  by Oliver Sacks
I recommend all books by Oliver Sacks since all of them are both informative and entertaining (his best known work is probably The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat ). In Hallucinations, Sacks details cases of people with certain conditions or brain abnormalities experiencing hallucinations. For example, there is a person in the book with the Charles Bonnet Syndrome (experience of hallucinations while being blind (the brain “compensates” the lack of vision in this way)), and the author also talks about sleep paralysis that induces hallucinations.
V. The Myth of Mental Illness  by Thomas Szasz
Thomas Szasz (1920 – 2012), a major proponent of the anti-(coercive) psychiatry movement, penned this work in 1961, detailing in it how labelling plays a powerful role in the field of psychiatry to the detriment of the patients. Psychiatrists decide what is and is not a mental illness, passing stigma onto others, confining more and more people in institutions, while, at the same time, gaining a societal status, popularity and respect for themselves. This work is arguably as important and insightful as it was in 1961 – we should not forget the dangers that others have already clearly demonstrated.
VI. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind  by V. S. Ramachandran
Why is it that some patients still feel their limbs and experience them as though they are still attached when they have already been amputated? Why is it that a person may think that their family member is an imposter? This and other questions are posed and answered by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in this informative and engaging book that will be a treat for those curious about medical and psychological mysteries.
VII. Girl, Interrupted  by Susanna Kaysen
I thought I would finish this list with a more personal account. In 1967, Susanna Kaysen, age nineteen, was sent to a psychiatric hospital to undergo an evaluation. She spent about a year and a half at the McLean Hospital, being diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. Girl, Interrupted is her story of this experience in which she draws attention to the absurdity of the rules and to the embedded sexism.