Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich Metropolitan/Granta, HK$203 Ask yourself what the ancient Greeks mean to you. If you associate them with fluted marble columns, rigorously logical philosophy and a general sense of civilisation, it may come as a surprise that they had another, wilder side, overlooked in the standard Hellenic perspective. The Greeks were suckers for ecstatic ritual. Their religion revolved around dancing, much like that performed by 'savages' European travellers would later encounter around the globe. The misunderstood classical hedonists drew inspiration from a god whose shaggy shadow towers over this book: Dionysus, the lord of wine, fertility, mystery, spontaneity and general craziness. Dionysus drove female worshippers known as maenads to rampage through woods, tearing animals apart and having a good time any way they could. Broadly speaking, the maenads had the right idea, says Barbara Ehrenreich, who comes across as a highly disciplined individual. The writer, journalist and campaigner has 14 books to her name, including the undercover exploitation critiques Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. She also finds time to write for Time, Harpers, The New York Times Magazine, The Times and The Guardian. In the realm of non-fiction, she's a heavyweight endowed with the kind of clout that No Logo author Naomi Klein wields. Dancing in the Streets sets out to prove that, as the Greeks' behaviour suggests, joy is inherent to western culture and the world at large. Especially in the west, however, joy has been curbed. Blame a rogue's gallery of do-gooders, including Protestants, Calvinists, Puritans under the influence of the 17th-century English general and statesman Oliver Cromwell, Wahhabi Muslims, missionaries and killjoy zealots of all persuasions. No wonder, Ehrenreich argues, we have a depression epidemic and its corollary, an obesity crisis. If her outlook sounds gloomy, through her eyes hope beckons powerfully in the shape of rock music. 'Rock struck with such force, in the 1950s and early 1960s because the white world it entered was frozen over and brittle ... not only physically immobilising but emotionally restrained,' she writes. 'Rock, with its demands for immediate and unguarded physical participation, thawed the coolness, summoned the body into action, and blasted the mind out of the isolation and guardedness that had come to define the western personality. 'To the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, white rock fans were simply trying to reclaim their bodies again after generations of alienation and disembodied existence. They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life, rekindle the dead limbs, the cold ass, the stone heart, the stiff, mechanical, disused joints with the spark of life.' The warmth shines through in other surviving rituals. Think stadium sport, carnivals and even official celebrations that so often owe a debt to the razzmatazz displayed during French revolutionary festivals. Even the Nazis, with their operatic Nuremberg rallies had some sense of fun, Ehrenreich suggests. Already, the radical cultural commentator has been savaged by one reviewer - not for her audacity but for a lack of stylistic fizz. The charge is not unfair. She's prone to using phrases that would send Dionysus to sleep quicker than a carafe of wine. The text is littered with academic-sounding detritus, including 'as mentioned earlier' and 'as we have seen'. She rounds off her book with a rambling chapter entitled 'Conclusion: The Possibility of Revival'. The lapses seem particularly peculiar because Ehrenreich's reputation essentially rests on gritty reportage that would do credit to Morgan 'Supersize Me' Spurlock. Despite the disappointing outbreaks of gentility, Dancing in the Streets makes its case well enough. It's hard not to be seduced by her message, which seems to be: work, worship and fret less. Make merry.