Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament - Kay Redfield Jamison Focusing on the relationship between artistic creativity and manic-depressive illness, Touched With Fire is rewarding, interesting and full of information. However, this is a book that requires an effort, expects you to be paying attention fully at all times. This is no quick, relaxing beach read. Jamison brings her scientific and academic background to her subject, which makes for a fascinating but difficult read for anyone lacking her extensive background. Her constant references to scientific studies can get confusing, despite extensive notes, graphs, and charts, but if you can make it through the first half, the work is worth all the effort.

Narrowing her focus to a select range of artists - Byron, Poe, Coleridge, Melville, Van Gogh, Woolf, etc. - and drawing from myriad scientific studies, Jamison's hypothesis that the "divine madness" often referred to in artistic works is manic-depressive illness and furthermore has a strong overlap with creativity is well-stated with a solid base of information. The extensive family histories of various well-known poets, writers, painters, and artists gathered here are almost worth the list price by themselves. She documents the devastating effects of both sides of the illness on each artist's life, family, and ancestry, as well as puts forth a significant amount of evidence, much of it from the artists' own works or journals, to support the idea that the illness, with its extremes of emotions and its productive hypomanic states, contributed to their subjects genius.

Jamison makes it clear these afflicted artists suffered greatly, and despite her academic approach, her sympathy for them shines through. (And no wonder. As the author of An Unquiet Mind, she's certainly been through many of the trials these same artists suffered in their times.) Such compassion serves to humanize her subjects in an oftentimes dry, distanced text.

Unfortunately, it's this same sympathy that, in a very small way, diminishes from what she is trying to accomplish as an academic. While appropriate in her memoir, her affinity with her subjects introduces an emotional element into an otherwise scientific text that is jarring. Additionally, her respect for these artists trips over into awe. Though she documents their sufferings and repeatedly states how the creative output is certainly not worth the torment of this illness, the reader is left with the impression this is merely lip service, especially as she tends to romanticize even their morbid excesses and most incapacitating depressions. As both an artist and someone who has suffered sometimes crippling depression for years, I find this alarming in an academic work.

Overall, Jamison has written an incredible book, one that takes the romantic notion of the melancholic artist and shows the facts and figures behind it, for better and for worse.