Friday 25 May 2012
Devouring Books: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks
ANYWAY! In spite of the horrifying cover error, I liked this book. I don't know if 'enjoyed' is the right word for it because it was exactly laugh/thrill a minute, but it was definitely interesting, and it was written in a style that wasn't at all dumbed down, but at the same time was immensely readable. By this I mean, I didn't understand all the sciency and medical words and terms (and neither did Sacks pause to explain them all to the layman, which actually, I respect) and yet I wanted to keep on reading and find out what happened to these patients, and what exactly was going on with their brains. In a way, it's not at all fair- Sacks is clearly super intelligent since he's a neurologist, but also, the dude can write! Not fair at all.
What he also is though, and believe me this was a real relief, is incredibly respectful and even kind towards the subjects of his case studies. Because I think it's easy to look at the title and think 'well! This is clearly going to be mocking people with neurological problems', but it doesn't do that at all. Sacks isn't adverse to seeing the humour in some of the situations created by these patients (like, for example, thinking one's own wife is a hat! What?!) but he remains respectful to them, and curious more than anything about the causes of their disorders (most of which are explained by brain injuries and abnormalities) and about how the world must seem to them. He admits, often, that the rest of us pretty much can't understand or conceive of how these people experience the world, but he at least tries to put himself in their shoes and have a bit of empathy with them.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in my extensive research* into Sacks and his work, I found out that he's been criticised for exploiting his subjects, and that his books have been compared to modern day freak shows. I just... I'm alarmed that anyone would think that, because, yeah, he's discussing delicate neurological issues that make his subjects act in odd ways, but he never mocks or disrespects them because of this, and has much more empathy for them than your average person on the street would (at least that's true in this book, but I can't imagine him ever writing like that... He's really nice!). The thing is, as far as I can tell, a lot of doctors write studies like these, and then other doctors read them and use them to help with diagnoses and things like that. But since Sacks is clearly a good writer, his books appeal to a wider audience, and, I guess, that makes it look like he's making money from other people's misery/problems. Which I guess is true, but also... I don't know, doesn't he have a right to? It's not like he just studied these people, then laughed at them, and ran all the way to the bank- he treated them, and then wrote about them. I don't know, I just don't really see the problem- or, rather, I do, but I don't think it's one that's present here.
So! Neurology for the masses, what do I think? I think, yeah. It's interesting, and I feel smarter just from reading it, and also I feel sad that there are people who have to live like that, but glad that they adapt and live, just in a whole other way. This book also has the added bonus of going into psychology and philosophy at points too (did I mention that Sacks is really really clever?) because the mind's not all about the physical, and that made me feel kind of clever because I studied both of those at various points and I knew what he was talking about. However, I don't think you need to have studied neuroscience, psychology or philosophy to appreciate this book and to learn some stuff.
*Wikipedia counts as extensive research