Review of ‘A History of Insanity and the Asylum’ by Juliana Cummings

This is a fascinating topic which I have encountered previously in other history books and also in fiction. The premise of this book appealed to me because I wanted an overview of the history of defining mental illness and the treatment of people considered to be mentally ill.

To be fair to the author, this is a huge subject which must have been challenging to condense into a short book. A lot of research has obviously gone into it. However, I didn’t enjoy the book and had some issues with it.

Book cover of A History of Insanity and the Asylum by Juliana Cummings

Firstly, I felt that the book wasn’t well-written at all. To be quite frank, I could have done a better job myself. The word choices were old-fashioned also, such as using ‘mankind’ and ‘man’ to mean, well, humans. Secondly, the content sometimes seemed like ‘filler’. Yes, women were expected to be domestic angels in times gone by. Yes, we don’t use certain terms to describe mental illness today. Tell us something we didn’t already know. Thirdly, the author occasionally used the first person, which was unnecessary as it didn’t contribute anything meaningful. It’s not what you’d expect in a history book. Fourthly, the content was presented in a repetitive manner, such as descriptions of hospitals and how many beds they had, etc. It might have been more engaging to focus on one per chapter and get deeper into what it was really like to live or work there. Lastly, while the majority of the content was in chronological order, towards the end of the book the time skipped back and forth through the centuries, which was confusing.

In summary, I was very disappointed with this book. If you have literally no knowledge of the topic, it might be worth a read as a starting point, if the writing style doesn’t bother you.

Thank you to the publisher Pen & Sword for the advance copy via NetGalley. The book will be published on 30th January.

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