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
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I've seen this book around... the cover caught my attention (j/k!!), but your discussion of it and my desire to weigh in on the 'exploitation/simple discussion' debate makes me wish I could bump it up my TBR pile!ReplyDelete
Thank you! It really is an interesting read, but not necessarily one where I'm like 'YOU MUST READ IT NOW', you know? But still good :)Delete
Nice to see a review of this, as I was considering reading it for my AP Psych class. I think I will still pick up a copy if I happen to run across one, especially since Sacks' writing is accessible without being overly simplified.ReplyDelete
I think the cover is trying to copy one of René Magritte's surrealist paintings. :)
Ah, that's handy then! It's definitely a nice balance between readable and scientific, so definitely worth a read.Delete
I... have no idea who that is! BUT it may well be and that's fine, BUT it's still inaccurate to the essay soooo, yeah.
Neurology for the masses! It almost sounds like a rallying cry.ReplyDelete
It seems like an interesting good topic and it's good to hear he's not exploitative with his subjects. I can see how that would be easy. I wonder if the detractors feel like talking about anyone's neurological disorder as exploitative.
Don't think it isn't because it is! (It isn't. But could be, yeah!)Delete
It could very well be that people think talking about neurological disorders at all is exploitative- I know that people were complaining about The Iron Lady because of the depiction of Margaret Thatcher with dementia, and how that was like demeaning to her or whatever, and then Meryl Streep was like 'that's not exploitative, that's just how it is- she literally does have dementia, and it's not ok to just ignore what that's like for her, and for others who have it.' Something like that, and I think that's definitely true here too (ps I LOVE MERYL)
So, anyway, yeah, I didn't find him exploitative at all, just lovely and nice and I kind of want him to be my brain doctor only I don't want there to be anything wrong with my brain!
Wow, your review makes this book sound so interesting. I've seen it around, but I never knew, what it was about! I agree with you, that it shouldn't be a problem; but I'm guessing the man who did mistake his wife for a hat wouldn't be too happy to have a book named after the very incident! Oh, and Wikipedia does count as extensive research. :)ReplyDelete
I'm not sure the man who mistook his wife for a hat really has the capacity to read things anymore (which is really sad now that I think of it!) but, I dunno whether he'd mind the book being named after it... I mean, I'd be sort of proud but... I dunno. It is pretty good though, I'd have a read of it if you get the chance to :)Delete
I'm pretty sure I've had this book on my shelf for ages and didn't even really know what it was about, so thanks for clearing it up! It sounds great, I should probably read it some time!ReplyDelete
I think people tend to criticize anyone who writes about people with neurological/mental problems, whether it be fiction or not. I swear I hear some sort of outcry like that for a lot of books, like some people just believe that people with these disorders should NEVER be written about, like just putting a them in print is sacreligious or something, which never makes sense to me. People. Psshhh.
Reeeead it! Although, I mean, don't like RUSH to it or anything, but give it a go some time :).Delete
I definitely think that's one school of thought (that's clearly wrong) and it seems like quite an American thing, which I say not based on any real evidence, but on my mum being surprised that there was a disabled kid in Glee, because, and I quote 'they normally ignore anyone who's not like perfect and hide them away.' Although, actually, I think that's been quite true of all tv and stuff, and I think it's definitely a good thing to include all sorts of people, because hey, that's what the world's really like!
Um. Lost my train of thought a bit there. So yeah, neurological disorders happen people, deal with it, and treat the sufferers like real people instead of pretending they don't exist!
Great review! I've heard of this book and just now got a copy so I can't wait to start reading it, even more now that I've read your review.ReplyDelete
Aw, thanks! I hope you enjoy it- I'll be eagerly awaiting your thoughts on it :)Delete
Hi, I stumbled onto your blog doing research about this book for a class. I just wanted to comment on the "lazy cover artist," take a look at this article,"The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" or "A Wife Is like an Umbrella"--Fantasies of the Modern and Postmodern," by Jacqueline Rose. You might think otherwise.ReplyDelete