12/04/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James
Even many diligent students of American history would be hard-pressed to recall Joshua Abraham Norton, who was—or, more precisely, claimed to be—emperor of the United States from 1859 until 1880. He and Yvonne X., who's determined, against all laws of science, to invent a perpetual motion machine, are among those profiled in this readable study of eccentrics (whose better-known ranks include Ben Franklin, Johnny Appleseed and Alexander Graham Bell). "Our collective imagination is piqued by the bizarre behavior of someone like Howard Hughes," notes Weeks, a neuropsychologist at Scotland's Royal Edinburgh Hospital, collaborating here with freelance writer James. "Eccentrics have thrown off the constraints of normal life to let themselves do exactly as they please. The rest of us are vaguely unsettled by that degree of freedom."
The research and interviews done by Weeks and his colleagues suggest that eccentrics are rarely crazy and are often happier, healthier and more creative than card-carrying conformists. The book bogs down in spots, but it is most often an entertaining look at a group of people usually observed with alarm. (Villard, $23)