This handbook of melancholy is not for the suggestible. Andrew Solomon's aim with The Noonday Demon is to present the known history of human depression and to examine the array of psychological, chemical and other defenses taken against it. For those who have never been depressed or have been only mildly so, he portrays a world of near unimaginable bleakness.

At the center of this ambitious project is the author's frank account of his own life-draining depression. "I would have been happy to die the most painful death," he says of one episode, "but I was too lethargic even to conceptualize suicide." In another bout with despair, he does attempt self-destruction by trying to infect himself with AIDS.

Solomon contends that depression is so widespread and pervasive that it can no longer be dismissed as a socially negligible affliction. In its chronic form, he reports, depression besets "some 19 million" Americans, including two million children. Its ravages worldwide, he adds, are more devastating than any other health problem except heart disease. "Untreated depression [in the U. S.]," he notes, "has a mortality rate of between 10 and 20 percent." In searching for his own cure, Solomon leads the reader through a mind-bending maze of prescription drugs, "talking therapies" and alternative treatments. At one point, he even travels to Senegal to partake of a blood-soaked ritual that involves the sacrifice of a ram and a rooster. Besides being unwaveringly honest about himself, Solomon introduces a gallery of tormented friends and acquaintances who personalize the many forms depression can take. His anatomizing of melancholy strikes a balance between the systematic, in which he compartmentalizes historic, scientific and demographic facts, and the anecdotal, through which he conveys the oppressive weight of the malady. Despite the dead-ends that victims and researchers of depression continue to encounter, Solomon ends his book with a chapter bravely called "Hope." That quality, he shows, resides less in the glacially slow advances of drugs and psychiatry than in a recurring human condition that is as tenacious and mysterious as depression itself: the will to live.

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