The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

Okay dokey. This book is jumping the queue for reviews because I just need to have it out and done. One of my book clubs generally picks one nonfiction book to read a year, and this is it this year. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. TMWMHWFAH is essentially Oliver Sacks‘s clinical notes on unique neurological patients, combined with his musings on how these patients have affected his perception of the meaning of life.

One the one hand, it was fascinating. It is truly interesting how our brains control, well, everything. The neurological disorders and their effects ranged from removing a man’s ability to read faces to a loss of the ability to automatically control one’s body, and from the ability to access and essentially experience again “forgotten” memories of childhood to the inability to control our impulses. When there is brain damage, for whatever reason, the effect can be devastating. I love the idea that everything is stored in our brains, if only we could just figure out how to access it. The brain is a remarkable and mostly unknown organ. TMWMHWFAH relates this point well. Also, I enjoyed how the book was divided into and explored four areas of neurological deficiencies: Losses, Excesses, Transports, The World of the Simple.

On the other hand, it wasn’t. Mr. Sacks’s tone throughout bothered me a great deal. First, he assumes that every reader is fluent in neurology. He bandies about terms like “Korsakovian,” “agnosia,” “aphasia,” and “proprioception” with little to no explanation and digresses on numerous occasions to refer to neurological history as if the reader were familiar with it. While I could generally ascertain his meaning, it made for slow going. Second, he is endlessly reductive about his patients. Even when it appears that he has some fondness for them and has gone to lengths to help them, he concludes with lines like this “But still and forever she remains defective and defeated.” (53). There were also many odd inter-references to patients that we hadn’t read about yet that frustrated me. As a result of all of this, I found myself skimming at times.

Also, since this book was published in 1984, it is sprinkled with outdated terms like “savages,” and “defectives” and “simples.” While I wasn’t really offended, it was uncomfortable. The old publication date also made me question what advances have been made in the last thirty years that would substantially change the outcomes in this book. While there were some post scripts, apparently added in 1998, they did little to make the book feel current.

Still, I found the content, if not the delivery and style, generally interesting and managed to make it through rather quickly. I am glad that I read it. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks [rating:3]

Have you read or reviewed this book too? Feel free to jump in with your thoughts or leave a link to your review in the comments.