The Book Of Phobias And Manias



October 10, 2022

The Book Of Phobias And Manias lists 99 fears and compulsions and the result is a peculiarly engaging book. Phobias are more common than one might think with surveys suggesting that more than 7% of people will experience a phobia at some point. Phobias are often hard to define although most medical researchers characterize them as irrational fear that affects a person’s daily life. Some phobias have an evolutionary component. The fear of snakes, called ophidiophobia, makes sense given that many are poisonous. Much the same can be said for spiders and rats.

However, the fears of feathers, popcorn, and balloons are odd. The fear of the number four, tetraphobia, is so deeply embedded in various Asian cultures that some hotels do not have floors or rooms with the number, apparently because in some of the region’s languages the word four sounds like the word death. As the author shows, the other side of the coin, manias, or the compulsion to act, can be just as disturbing.

Hoarding falls into this category, but there are also communal manias. For example, the author recounts the tale of “tulip mania” in Holland in the 1630s, when a collective obsession with tulip bulbs sent prices soaring to insane levels before crashing and ruining the economy. The author sometimes writes with her tongue in her cheek—e.g., in her descriptions of aibohphobia, the fear of palindromes, and nomophobia, the fear of losing one’s mobile phone—but she is clearly aware that phobias and manias can be serious psychological conditions. The author carefully treads the line between the oddness of her subject and sympathy for the people affected and she notes that many phobias can be treated, usually by controlled doses of exposure. The Book Of Phobias And Manias is an informative, witty, and unique perspective on human psychology. The Weekender


The book is an interesting chronicle of the lives of the four generations of one of America’s most prominent families. Men take the center stage: Patriarch Lazarus Morgenthau, a German Jew who arrived in New York in 1866; his formidable son Henry, a man with “outsized ambition” and a “drive for self-perfection”; Henry Jr., secretary of the treasury under Franklin Roosevelt; and finally eminent lawyer Robert, who died in 2019. Lazarus’ many financial failings and mental instability proved to be burdens on his family, most heavily on Henry, the middle of his seven sons. Hardworking and determined.

He proceeded to make a series of astute real estate investments—buying and flipping properties in Manhattan—and became one of the wealthiest men in Gilded Age America. Wealth bought him influence. A supporter of Woodrow Wilson, he was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, where, Meier writes, he witnessed with alarm the Armenian massacre, “mass murder on a scale the world had never seen.” Henry’s only son was unlike his father. Probably dyslexic, he struggled in school. “Burdened by an indecisive nature and weak self-esteem, he desperately wanted to prove himself,” which he did, amply, in his service to FDR. For 30 years, the New York Times noted at his death, “Mr. Morgenthau was Mr. Roosevelt’s confidant, cranky conscience, an intensely loyal colleague, and unabashed, but occasionally outraged, admirer.”

Robert, appointed by John F. Kennedy as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, became “the most powerful federal prosecutor in New York City.” Meier recounts his challenges, losses, and successes as he worked to “redraw the boundaries of power in New York” during a career “without precedent in the history of American law enforcement.” The book is a very readable and authoritative multigenerational description. The Weekender


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