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Obsession: A History Hardcover – November 1, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226137821
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226137827
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,216,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Distracting obsessive-compulsive behaviors are bad, but a lover's or artist's obsession is revered in contemporary society. How did we achieve this split in our review of obsession? In this sometimes humorous but often pedantic survey, Davis (My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of a Childhood with Deafness) explores how, in the mid–18th century, obsession went from being seen as possession by demons to a nervous disorder, an increasingly medicalized view. By the late–20th century, researchers used brain scans and other medical technology in an attempt to discover why one in every 10 persons is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Davis contends that obsession arises from a constellation of biological and cultural forces. Throughout his study, he offers compelling examples of his thesis through close readings of novels such as William Godwin's Caleb Williams, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Emile Zola's The Masterpiece, among others, as the fictional expressions of their authors' obsessions with certain cultural ideas. Davis acknowledges but dismisses the charge that he uses the word obsession loosely, and his academic approach limits the book's audience. 17 b&w illus. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Modern society both needs and fears obsessiveness. Olympian athletes, concert soloists, and novelists have to be obsessed, yet the admired qualities that undergird their excellence also cause suffering and can lead to psychiatric diagnosis. Davis (English, disability & human development, & medical education, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago; My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of a Childhood with Deafness) begins with a gripping story of his own boyhood compulsions. Taking examples from literature, history, art, and medicine, he shows how society both aggravates and aggrandizes obsessiveness, notably in sex education, science, and psychoanalysis. Francis Galton, Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes, and others populate a "biocultural narrative" that Davis introduces to penetrate walls of isolation between historical context and the latest fads and between categorical disease and the experience of illness. Profound, brilliant, and engaging, the book deplores the separation of medicine and psychology from their historical and social contexts. Demonstrating a narrative approach, Davis breaks the quarantine that isolates the obsessive person from obsessive society and rightly recommends a good dose of interdisciplinary medical history. Highly recommended; essential for most libraries.—E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

Lennard J Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written all types of work from memoirs to novels to popular journalism and been a commentator and interviewee on National Public Radio. Born in a family with two Deaf parents, Davis grew up in a Jewish working class, immigrant family in the Bronx. He attended the New York City public schools and then went to Columbia University where he was an undergraduate, graduate student, and then assistant professor. He has since taught at Brandeis University, University of Pennsylvania, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Binghamton University before arriving at his current post. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Westminster in London and Fordham University in New York. He runs, used to raise bees and chickens, and has an organic garden he tends in upstate NY.

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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Ejames LIEBERMAN on February 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Davis combines interests in English, Human Development, Disability, and Medical Education. A versatile scholar concerned with the practical and the theoretical, he begins with a gripping story of his own boyhood compulsions. Then he shows how society both aggravates and aggrandizes obsessiveness, notably in sex education, science, and psychoanalysis. He uses examples from literature, history, art and medicine: Galton, Dickens, Freud, Marie Stopes and many more. He uses the term "biocultural narrative" to break through the separation between historical context and the latest fads, and between categorical disease and the experience of illness. This is profound, brilliant, and engaging. A retired psychiatrist and historian of psychotherapy, I applaud the author's ability to join medicine and psychology with their historical and social contexts. He writes well, too.
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14 of 40 people found the following review helpful By C. E. McAuley on November 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Obsession: A History is a rather unfortunate entry into the conversation about the nature of both obsession in culture and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Put simply, the author is simply not up to the task of separating ideas that should be separate and putting together ideas that should be together. In sum, he is simply not up to the task of taking on this subject.

Yes, we live in an era of obsession. Fine. However, whether or not one pathologizes the symptoms associated with OCD or even call it OCD the reality is that OCD exists independently of whatever we call it, its constellation of symptoms exist and have existed as far back as we have personal histories and modern neuro-biological treatments such as exposure and response prevention therapy, medication and others have proven extremely effective in treating these symptoms (call them whatever you like). It does not exist simply to those who have it and those who treat it. It exists like any other medical disorder.

Would that Foucault were alive today and could take on this topic fully from a cultural perspective. At the same time as the author of Obsession: A History is trying (and failing) to out Foucault Foucault, the author of this text is attempting to achieve a Batesonian like cybernetics approach to the topic but, again, fails.

Either write a book about cultural obsession or write a book about relational awareness and environment in terms of OCD. To attempt to put such complex topics together in such a volume is, frankly, disrespectful to the subject matter and readers who follow the topic closely and, to a greater extent, misleading to those unfamiliar with the topics.

This relatively slim volume will likely not shed any new light for those familiar with the topic of obsession in culture or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the end, this book comes off as an unfortunate interruption to an important conversation.
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