Monday, March 12, 2012

A reading post

I'm in deadline mode, so posting will probably be a wee bit sparse for the remainder of March, though I'll try to catch up on my cooking posts and keep up my reading diary. On that note, here's what I've read so far this month. Told you my 2012 reading pace would slow down!

31) A First-Rate Madness, by Nassir Ghaemi. The author, a psychiatrist, contends that in times of crisis the most effective leaders are often those who show some degree of mental illness, or at least highly atypical personalities, including conditions such as depression, which Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln among others seem to have had, and bipolar disorder, which seems a likely explanation for some of William Tecumseh Sherman's odd behavior over the course of his life. On the other hand, leaders with more typical, "sane" behavior patterns can be ineffective in a crisis–his examples include George McClellan, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair.

It's an intriguing book, but I'm not sure how much I buy his thesis. He contends that “normal” personalities are often closed to change or exploring new options, while those who struggle with depression are often more realistic and given to empathy, and those with manic symptoms can be more creative. It's not that he minimizes the real problems caused by mood disorders, but I have my doubts that George McClellan's failure, for example, was caused by his being too sane. I do, however, agree with what Ghaemi says about the importance of resilience, which often results from facing and overcoming a crisis or challenge–whether that is surviving a depressive episode as Winston Churchill did on several occasions, or becoming president despite major health problems as both Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy did, or any number of other options. By that token, I think McClellan's real problem is that for the first 35 years of his life everything came so easily to him that he had no resources for facing a challenge when one arose, which he might have developed even with a completely typical personality if he hadn't had the bad luck of so much early good luck, as it were.

Ghaemi's historical examples are all from the American Civil War and later, but with my historical interests I couldn't help but try to apply them to some of the more familiar figures of the Napoleonic Era. I know Wellington better than anyone else from that time, since he's a major character in an as-yet-unpublished alternative history manuscript I wrote, and I couldn't make him fit any of Ghaemi's boxes. He doesn't have a typical, conformist sort of personality, and he certainly fits Ghaemi's mold of being a better crisis leader (as wartime commander) than a peacetime leader (as prime minister). But he doesn't come across as depressive or manic, either. Resilient, certainly. He had a few traits of hyperthymia, another good-for-crisis-leadership personality type Ghaemi cites, but by no means all of them. (Prototypical hyperthymic leaders include FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton. Wellington had the energy, ability to function on next to no sleep, and arguably the libido of the type, but NSM the extroversion and charm.) But if there's a name for that hyper-cool, hyper-controlled, no-drama-except-that-which-I-choose-for-effect personality that Wellington had, it's not in this book.

32) Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo, by Nick Foulkes. An interesting overview of the social milieu before and immediately after the great battle, focusing largely on the British in Brussels in the months, weeks, and days before the battle. Fascinating stuff, though I can't really find it shocking that people chose to party on the verge of war. What are they supposed to do, compose battle plans in their every waking hour or sit around contemplating their mortality? And it's a subtle thing, but Foulkes focuses more on how much was different 200 years ago than universal commonalities.

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