Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
I heard a story once from an old fellow I know. He used to work for a man who insisted on buying cartons of cigarettes whenever they crossed the border into a state with lower taxes. He was a rich man and so it seemed odd that they guy wanted to save a buck, but what the hell. And yet, the guy had another strange trait. When he smoked a cigarette, he would suck it down to the nub. Frequently, this man burned his fingers and swore, but he kept on working to extract that last bit of smoke from each and every cigarette.
Well, at one point, the fellow I know asked the man why on earth he did this, to which the smoking man replied,
That’s where they keep the good stuff, kid. That’s where they keep the juice.
After I decided to open a new section on How Not To Write called What To Write About, I knew I needed something good. So, I cast a careful eye over my book collection to locate something even mildly useful in my quest to document my failures as a writer and shed some light on the forward path.
I have a great book about the Crimean War, but then someone already wrote a little book about that one called War and Peace. I looked past all of the books I own on philosophy and religion and all the books on grammar and form. I turned away from literary essays about the nature of the novel, the shape of fiction, the aesthetic nonsense on which no self-respecting reader of popular fiction would waste ten seconds.
So I dug a little deeper.
In a box of books I’d set aside for storage, I came across Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 with a second edition in 1852, and I knew right then I’d found the juice.
At this point, you must wonder why on earth I chose this book. It’s 150 years old. But the themes in this book ring true today just as they have for centuries before. The panics and the terrors, the loves and heroic dreams, the greed, and of course the superstitions are all on display in Mackay’s work.
I’m not going to cover all of the ideas here, just the principle concepts and perhaps a few examples both from the book and in the modern era. What I will say is that a writer looking to capture the popular imagination would be well served to pay attention to trends of today and yesterday. These are the ideas people want to read about. It’s on the front page of the newspaper and in the chatter of the coffeehouse. It’s the fuel that drives chain emails and the ranting posts of late-night bloggers (who in fact are no different than the pamphleteers of 200 years ago).
Learn from my mistakes. Write what the people want to read.