Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Book: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Author: Oliver Sacks
Like/Don't Like: Fascinating!

Oliver Sacks is clearly a genius. And not just any kind of genius but an All-Around Genius. He's smart in a lot of different ways. He's a world-renown neurologist, which automatically puts him up there on the smartypants scale. And reading his books gives you the sense that he knows everything about everything. This book is comprised of 20 or so of his most interesting case studies and in them he references movies, books, philosophers, music, art, and sports. He would kill on Jeopardy.

For me, though, his real genius is how he manages to write about these things in a way that isn't just understandable but is also compelling. He's an incredible story-teller. Especially for someone who is so knowledgeable about a subject that very few people even understand - that being neurological disorders so severe you wonder a little if he's making them all up. Because the title is true. He had a patient who literally could not tell the difference between his hat and his wife. He actually grabbed his wife's head when he meant to put his hat on. Dr. Sacks also writes about a woman who lost all awareness of herself except through sight. So if she closed her eyes for longer than a blink her brain would think that her body no longer existed and she would collapse. He writes about twins who can calculate prime numbers up to 20 digits and a woman who literally hears music in her head all the time. It has some crazy stuff in it.

But it's not necessarily the stories that grab you, it's the way he tells them. If these were just clinical records of unusual cases I would never have stuck with it. But mixed in with all the scientific explanations and references to previous studies by doctors you know nothing of are his experiences of getting to the bottom of problems that nearly everyone else had written off as impossible to solve. He's able to show the human aspect of every case and it's touching to see a doctor be both fascinated and excited by the challenge and compassionate towards those that are suffering. Particularly in the last section of the book where he writes about his work with the mentally disabled. It's very sweet.

In regards to that last section: the book was written in 1984, before political correctness took over, and he uses old school terminology for the mentally disabled. Terms like dullard and retardate and simpleton and freak. I actually found it to be kind of funny and refreshing because clearly he loves them and wants the best for them and would never say anything degrading or mean spirited. It just shows how times have changed in 25 years.

And if you're looking for something a little less scientifically taxing on your brain I will recommend his memoir, Uncle Tungsten. It's about his childhood in England during the war and his fascination with chemistry. It made me want to memorize the periodical chart of elements.


Liz W. said...

I've added these to my list of books.

What would I do without you?

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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