The Noonday Demon

The Noonday Demon is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’ve always known, intellectually, that writing nonfiction is just as much of an art as writing fiction, but I’m not sure I ever quite believed it. There’s something illusory about great nonfiction. It gives you the illusion that you’re just learning everything there is to know about a subject. In reality, though, nonfiction, just like fiction, is about delivering sequential bits of information to the reader in order to create a continuous emotional experience. However, unlike fiction, which can rely on the logic of causality as a method of organizing its information, nonfiction doesn’t have an obvious internal logic. Any fact can follow any other fact. I have no idea how nonfiction writers decide to organize their work, but luckily I don’t need to know—I can just sit back and enjoy it.

The Noonday Demon is the most exhaustive book about depression that I could possibly imagine reading. I’m sure more exhaustive books exist, but there’s no way that a general reader could handle them. Solomon starts by describing his own history of mental illness. Then he gives an impressionistic overview of what depression feels like. And afterwards he has a chapter on treatment, a chapter on addiction, a chapter on how the ailment has been viewed throughout history, a chapter on the possible evolutionary utility of depression, etc. Basically, the book spirals outwards and becomes less focused on individual experience and more general in its treatment of the subject. Which seems like it wouldn’t work, because it means starting with the most emotional and impactful material and then slowly diffusing that impact until, at the end of the book, you’re just reading facts. But it does work. It works amazingly well.

I’m not going to talk too deeply about the content of the book, but the thing that struck me is how he delicately conveys the interplay between the body and the mind. We think of depression as being different, for instance, from grief, because grief is something we’re allowed to feel. It’s something that is warranted by present circumstances. Grief is a rational response to circumstances, while depression is some wonky chemical stuff going on in your mind.

However, grief is also wonky chemical stuff. Like, the mind is just chemicals and cells. There’s nothing else. The processes by which our mind generates ordinary sadness are exactly the same as those by which it generates depression. And many depressions—particularly a person’s first depressive episode—start off as responses to legitimately troubling major life changes: losses in the family, divorces, personal trauma. Andrew Solomon, for instance, describes how his first breakdown occurred after he suffered an ailment that left him in intense and continuous physical pain for a week.

After my reading the book, my conception* of depression is that it’s something which occurs when the grief process is triggered inappropriately or when it continues for an inappropriately long period of time. I also found it interesting that subsequent depressive episodes tend to be worse and tend to be triggered by less and less appropriate stimuli.

I’m not sure where I was going with this. Just that it was interesting to me. Previously, my view of depression was that it was a completely different thing that had nothing to do with ordinary sadness, but now my view is different. Anyway, I highly recommend the book. Although, this is definitely one of those books that I bounced off of a half-dozen times over the years until I finally picked it up and was hooked.

*I include this caveat because I am not a doctor or psychologist, and it’s possible that someone could quibble with various aspects of my post, and particularly, I imagine, with my characterization of depression as being akin to grief, since I know many people don’t experience it that way.

3 thoughts on “The Noonday Demon

  1. Xan

    “However, unlike fiction, which can rely on the logic of causality as a method of organizing its information, nonfiction doesn’t have an obvious internal logic.”

    This threw me for a loop, because by default I would have said the opposite thing: it’s straightforward to write nonfiction precisely *because* there is an underlying logic that you are constantly being pushed toward. But I suppose that in another sense, fiction gives you great flexibility (as a writer) to create your own logic of causality, whereas nonfiction forces you to uncover the logic underlying the topic, which can be arbitrarily difficult.

    A disconnected stream of facts would be a boring book indeed. Presumably, unless you are authoring an encyclopedia, your reason for writing a nonfiction book is not simply to talk about the way things are, but rather *why* they are that way. You are telling a story, and facts per se are not really the main attraction — they exist to support the narrative you’re trying to convey.

    From your brief description of the book, it does sound like the author was able to deeply *connect* things that weren’t connected before. And it makes sense that a stream of facts would come at the end and actually be valued in that position, once a logical framework has been established that can hold them in their proper place.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      If you’re really listening to your own novel, there’s only a very limited number of things that can come next at any given point. That seems less true for nonfiction.

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