We tend to think of sarcasm as a modern affliction, but Charles Mackay's writing is as sarcastic as anything I have ever read. Extraordinary Popular Delusions is a 700 page study of what Mackay calls the Madness of Europe, up until 1841. The book is divided into long and short sections, depending on how exhaustively the author wanted to explore a given topic. Some of the long sections include financial bubbles, alchemy, the Crusades, and witch hunting frenzies. Shorter sections cover various types of medical quackery, doomsday prophets, poisoners, and dueling.
Every now and then Mackay pauses to praise his own age as having put such outbreaks of public madness as the Crusades and witch trials behind them. Of course Mackay did not live to see two World Wars nearly destroy Europe. As far as witch trials, it was only a few years ago that the recovered memory fad led to accusations as insane as any ever made by a witch hunter. Financial bubbles will continue as long as people are willing to risk their life savings on investments that they do not understand and are designed not to be understood. And while alchemy may be largely forgotten, modern day New Age gurus and televangelists will continue to exploit greed and fear of death in the never ending dance of the gullible and the fraud.
I bought a copy of this book at least 25 years ago for the title alone and it sat on my shelf unread until now. Not a lot of 19th century non-fiction gets read these days, mostly because the value of non-fiction tends to diminish the more out of date it becomes. Also because 19th century books tend to be very long and dense in comparison to modern books. Mackay's topic is unfortunately timeless and his sarcastic tone is very readable. If you try the book and get bogged down in the details of 18th century investment ripoffs, you might try skipping ahead to the Crusades and the witch mania which is more engaging.