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The Geography of Madness

Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes

Jon Ronson meets David Grann: a fascinating, wildly entertaining adventure and travel story about how culture can make us go totally insane.

The Geography of Madness is an investigation of “culture-bound” syndromes, which are far stranger than they sound. Why is it, for example, that some men believe, against all reason, that vandals stole their penises, even though they’re in good physical shape? In The Geography of Madness, acclaimed magazine writer Frank Bures travels around the world to trace culture-bound syndromes to their sources–and in the process, tells a remarkable story about the strange things all of us believe.


Are you reading The Geography of Madness with your book group? Check out our reading group guide to get the conversation started.

FRANK BURES’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, Bicycling, Wired and have been included in a number of Best American Travel Writing anthologies. They’ve also been selected as “Notable” picks for Best American Sports Writing 2012 and the Best American Essays 2013. He speaks several languages, has lived in countries around the world, and currently lives in Minneapolis.

It would be easy just to gawk at the strangeness of these syndromes, or to dismiss them as unscientific or psychosomatic. Bures doesn’t do that. He carefully considers the relationships between culture,  health, the mind, and the body, which can lead people to experience seemingly impossible things.”The Atlantic

“What Bures has achieved here is a complex, nuanced and original meditation on our species and how we manage to coexist on a planet where we are all the same, yet each so different.”The Australian

“The premise for The Geography of Madness is so irresistible you are left wondering why you never thought of it yourself. It is a travel book with a quest.”
New Scientist

“In The Geography Of Madness, journalist Frank Bures shows that what such ’culture-bound syndromes’ demonstrate is the astonishing power of culture and belief – on all of us.”The Guardian

“Bures asks what forces are at the root of people’s suffering. How is mental and physical health intertwined? Along the way, readers get an entertaining history of the study of culture…bombshells from his own family history…give the story heart.”Maclean’s

“Bures, a Minneapolis-based travel writer, turns in a reportorial tour de force in this examination of culture, belief and madness.”Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Wonderfully weird.”Toronto Globe and Mail

“An insightful journey deep into the science of culture and belief…Bures deftly navigates the geographically defined contours of the mind.”Longitude

“With The Geography of Madness, Frank Bures has created a literary, thoughtful study that explores the connections between culture and psychology, storytelling and health.  It’s also, to my knowledge, the most pleasant and least painful way to learn about penis theft.”—Peter Hessler, author of Oracle of Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

“Penis theft. Vampires. Black magic. These are not exactly prime ingredients for a hilarious, empathetic travel book, but Frank Bures has pulled off something incredible in The Geography of Madness. In demonstrating how culture-bound concepts of ‘madness’ and ‘sickness’ really are, he reminds us what we human beings have in common, which is to say, we’re all beautifully, fascinatingly nuts.”—Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

“Frank Bures has a brave, hungry mind and a heavily inked passport that have taken him to the far reaches of the world and human behavior. You’ll be glad to join him on his quest in The Geography of Madness, a book that reads like a magical treasure map. The chapters take us through the quirky, the wondrous, the horrifying, but ultimately leave us with a better understanding of ourselves. Bures writes as some combination of investigative journalist, cultural anthropologist, daredevil, and empath.”—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“In a world coming unstitched, Frank Bures travels the globe gathering threads, weaving the odd and the otherworldly into something whole. I would follow Bures to the far corners of the earth for his stories—finally, in The Geography of Madness, I can.”—Michael Perry, author of Population: 485—Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

“By turns harrowing and hilarious, Bures’s global journey explores the deep complexities of how culture influences the way we see the world.”—Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

“Frank Bures has written a potent, unique narrative about how culture and our own thinking can do very strange things to us. This enjoyable and informative book takes us to places some truly bizarre places — both in the world and in our minds.”—David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity

“With the drive of an investigative reporter, a researcher’s patience, and a poet’s gift for words, Frank Bures teases out the logic and sanity behind madness. In going into the histories and psychologies of some of the world’s strangest maladies, he shows us that it takes a village to make a penis disappear.” —Mukoma Wa Ngugi, author of Nairobi Heat