What’s it all about?:
In his most extraordinary book, “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century” (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.
If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do. A great healer, Sacks never loses sight of medicine’s ultimate responsibility: “the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject.”
What did I think?:
This particular work of nonfiction might not come as a surprise to recent readers of my blog as I’ve been participating in Nonfiction November and being quite enthusiastic about the fact that neuroscience is one of my favourite things to read about. Saying that, it might come as a bit of a shock (and it certainly was to me!) that I haven’t picked up a single book by world-renowned neuroscientist Oliver Sacks who has written a plethora of books on the topic before sadly passing away in 2015. Awarded a CBE in 2008, Sacks even has an asteroid named after him for crying out loud! It was high time I discovered his work and I was delighted when my partner, Mr B picked one of his most famous books as part of my September TBR.
Generally, I have to say that I really enjoyed this fascinating little book. I have some small issues with it which I’ll go into a bit later but overall, it was a mind-blowing insight into the world of the brain when it happens to malfunction. It’s a book I absorbed in small chunks, reading a particular case each night and personally, I found this to be the best method of taking in the wealth of information that we are given as a reader. Now I’m quite lucky to have a scientific background because of my day job within science but I have to admit there were moments when I feel the author assumed the reader had a greater medical knowledge than they might otherwise have. This makes me slightly concerned that someone who doesn’t have any prior scientific know-how might be a bit turned off by portions of this book but thankfully I don’t think there’s too many instances of information overload and most of the time, I believe you would get the gist of what the author is describing.
Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat And Other Clinical Tales.
I have to say, the cases that Sacks describes in this book are absolutely unforgettable. There’s the “Man” from the title who has issues with visual recognition, even attempting to lift his wife’s head clean off her neck, mistaking it for his hat! Oddly enough, as we find with many of these neurological cases, despite our man’s severe visual recognition problems, he still manages to work as a successful music teacher and live a fulfilling life. We also have a man suffering from Parkinson’s who can’t help but tilt as he walks, rather like the Tower Of Pisa and develops a strange method to correct his tilting when Sacks draws his attention to it. Then there is the lady who has a strange dream that she cannot feel parts of her body and one day, when she awakes, her dream seems to have become her worst nightmare. She loses all sense of where her body is in space and in time (known as proprioception) and she is forced to concentrate at every waking moment to assess where her body might be, even for something as simple as sitting down.
I think the most heart-breaking story for me was the story of the middle-aged sailor who Sacks meets and immediately forges a relationship with. However, our sailor believes himself to be nineteen years old and in the year 1945 and neglects to remember who Sacks is after a few minutes of leaving the room. There is sadness in a lot of the cases that Sacks recounts and other accounts that had me shaking my head in disbelief and wonder, purely at how our brain can mess up so randomly and most importantly, drastically affect the rest of our lives as a result. However, the most interesting thing is that in many of these cases, the person afflicted didn’t realise anything was actually wrong and seemed perfectly content in the new life that their brain had made for them. Does this make it okay? Of course not! But are they suffering? It’s hard to say and there’s so much about the brain that we still don’t know which makes it an endlessly fascinating subject for me.
Image from: https://charterforcompassion.org/science-and-research-compassion-book/what-neuroscientists-can-teach-you-about-the-brain
As I alluded to earlier, I do have some small criticisms about this book, aside from the occasionally complicated and unexplained scientific terms I mentioned before. I am fully aware that this book was originally published in 1986 and therefore, attitudes and political correctness were perhaps slightly different however I did find it uncomfortable reading when Sacks devoted whole chapters to individuals that were mentally challenged/autistic and referred to them in terms that would be derogatory nowadays i.e. idiot, retarded, simple to name a few. Of course I understand this was merely a sign of the times and wouldn’t be acceptable today but this book has had multiple editions published and I don’t think a quick update would have hurt? Just my opinion.
Apart from this little niggle, I found this to be a highly informative and intriguing read and I’ll be interested to pick up another of Sacks works in the future for sure.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks was the fifty-first book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!