Every summer, during our holiday in Orkney, there is a moment of panic. We’re standing on a dizzying cliff – looking across a sleeve of sea at the Old Man of Hoy, maybe – and I’m consumed with a longing to fling myself over. It’s not suicidal. I just yearn to feel the wild rush of air against my cheeks: I want to fly. I’ve never met anyone who shares this compulsion, but The Book of Phobias and Manias assures me it’s quite common. Indeed, it has a name: acrophobia. Kate Summerscale understands it perfectly: ‘The whirl of vertigo,’ she says, can ‘seem like the giddiness of yearning.’
A new book from Summerscale is always a treat. She does vast amounts of research, and then manages to let go of it, and take flight in prose that is both forensic and conversational. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and The Wicked Boy explore Victorian murders, and The Haunting of Alma Fielding reanimates an investigation into a poltergeist on the eve of the second world war. So Phobias and Manias, which burrows into our deepest fears and desires, might seem like a departure. But it’s not. Summerscale has again found herself bewitched by what Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. Her sub-title – ‘A History of the World in 99 Obsessions’ – might echo Neil MacGregor, but this reads more like a book by Oliver Sacks, with dashes of Roald Dahl.
It’s arranged alphabetically, like a small encyclopaedia: ornithophobia (fear of birds), osmophobia (smells), ovophobia (eggs) etc. And at the end of each entry is a list of obsessions that might fall broadly into the same category. So if you suffer from glossophobia (fear of public speaking) you might also want to read about erythrophobia (blushing) or gelotophobia (fear of being laughed at).
Some of the traits she investigates are familiar: arachnophobia, dipsomania, egomania.