Pick of the Month

WITF's Pick of the Month bring's you the very best books and more. Every month we’ll recommend a great book for you to check out--from biographies and novels to poetry, children’s books and more. We’ll promote selections monthly on WITF TV and on WITF FM 89.5. Read along with us as we discover literary finds that engage, enlighten and entertain. Bookmark this page to keep up to date with the latest info about monthly picks—including details on how you can meet the authors. Pick up a copy and start reading today!

May pick of the month: "The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing" by Damion Searls

Written by Midtown Scholar Bookstore | May 1, 2017 1:00 AM

The best biographies offer a personal viewpoint on historical events, an insider's account of scientific discoveries, or a first-hand perspective on key moments of cultural change.

Guggenheim-Fellowship winner Damion Searls' landmark new biography of the early 20th-century psychologist Hermann Rorschach satisfies all those readerly desires--and more. In masterly crafted prose, he combines the family story of this Swiss-born doctor and avid researcher, with wide-ranging reflections on art, culture, and creativity before the 2nd World War. Then, with equal drama and verve, Searls traces Rorschach's lasting contributions to psychoanalysis and modern understanding of perception, throughout the last century to the present day.

The classic Rorschach test sits uniquely at the intersection of art, science, journalism, law, and popular culture. No idea from psychology has saturated modern culture as thoroughly as the inkblots. However, when we think of the most influential interpreters of the human psyche, Hermann Rorschach may not come to mind. With THE INKBLOTS: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing (2017), Searls sets out to change that. In this first-ever biography of both the Rorschach test, or inkblot test, and the man who created it, Searls documents the physician's groundbreaking contributions to modern psychology as well as the surprising--and deeply enduring--afterlife of his work, as the inkblots spread out of the clinic and into our shared cultural imagination.

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind using ten ambiguous yet carefully designed inkblot drawings. For years he had grappled with the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic of a new generation of modern artists. He had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see. After Rorschach's tragic death in 1922 at the young age of thirty-seven, less than a year after publishing the test, the inkblots became a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, moving around the world into countless applications, without their creator's guiding hand.

Rorschach himself was a visual artist, and his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, workers applying for jobs, and people suffering from mental illness--or simply trying to understand themselves better. The Rorschach test's power to reach unconscious thought has led scientists to use it in researching everything from the neuroscience of perception to Alzheimer's disease.

Searls' unique background as an acclaimed literary translator supplied him with unique tools to craft this comprehensive study of Rorschach and the inkblots. Searls first saw the Rorschach Archive while researching in Bern, Switzerland. The vast majority of Rorschach's writings, and all of his letters and personal history, were untranslated, before Searls' work. He also made an amazing discovery of an unknown second archive. Wolfgang Schwarz, an American who had discovered the Rorschach test as a student in 1946, stayed up all night reading Rorschach's book, Psychodiagnostics, and, inspired by him, became a psychiatrist. Schwartz went to Switzerland in the late 1950s to track down and interview everyone he could find who had known Rorschach. Although Rorschach had died in 1922, his widow, sisters, and two children were still alive, and shared their reminiscences. Schwarz also found and interviewed Rorschach's colleagues, his best friend from school, his favorite cousin, and his live-in maid. Schwarz walked away with a cache of hundreds of family photographs, letters, and drawings.

In 2013 Searls sat down at Schwarz's widow's living-room table in Tarrytown, New York, in front of a large metal lockbox and a thousand-page printout. The three hundred and sixty-two pages of Schwarz's interview notes were a treasure trove, giving Searls unparalleled access to Rorschach's life and character and forming the basis of a far more personal, vivid look at Rorschach, the man, than ever before possible.

In THE INKBLOTS, Searls tells the unlikely story of the Rorschach's test creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable resilience--and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, this exceptionally well-written, entertaining and accessible biography celebrates the twentieth-century's most visionary synthesis of art and science.--Highly recommended!

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