Saturday, September 06, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book came recommended to me by multiple people. It is comprised of several case histories put together by Oliver Sacks, which focuses primarily on how neurological disfunctions can alter people's identity, or ability to identify others. The titular example is a man who cannot perceive the abstract: the only way he can perceive faces is by looking at details, which can often confuse, hence the attempt to put his wife onto his head.

 Sacks goes out of his way to humanise each case that appears in the book, and each persons struggles to maintain their sense of self. This includes studies of a woman who has lost the sense of her own body, and amnesiacs with very little sense of who they are now. At its best, the book can be quite moving as you see how much people can lose but still manage to carve out something of themselves. 

That said, I'm not sure the book completely works for me as a piece. The case histories are often quite disconnected, to the point where I feel like Sacks repeats himself. The language often varies quite a lot: it goes from lyrical descriptions of people's suffering to rather technical language which I'm afraid went over my head. A minor bug bear as well is that Sacks adds in his conversations with these people, which often sound like he is talking to himself.

Still a good work, and I imagine at its first release date quite a revolutionary one. The "World of the Simple" section where he suggests that people with severe mental retardation still have value strikes me as somewhat patronising, but that might be me looking at it from a more modern perspective.

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