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

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, isn’t the type of book that I would normally choose to read, but somebody at work thought it would be a good idea to start a small book club and this was their choice of reading for the first month, hence me writing up my mental notes for posterity. This book has apparently sold more than one million copies, possibly so that the author could hold his little finger to the corner of his mouth.

Dr Sacks is a highly experienced neurologist who qualified as a medical practicioner in the UK before moving to the USA in 1965, where his career has been based since. As I understand things, much of his approach and teaching was before the time when the sciences of neurology and psychology formally split, which allows him to provide perspectives of both the biology of the brain and the intangible machinations of the human mind.

This book was published in the early 1980s from some of his, presumably more unusual or noteworthy, case histories, but rather than just sticking to the dry facts, each patient’s unique situation is related to the reader with background information and narrative, with occasional formal references to other scientists’ works. As a technical reader, I appreciated the attention to detail, the inclusion of how the author arrived at his decisions and the efficient way he concisely wrote scenes.

The short story format made it easy to dip in and out of the book and should be familiar if you’ve ever read any of the fiction from Jack Sheffield, Mike Pannet or Gervase Phinn. The stories ranged from straightforward memory loss, to a woman who lost the concept of ‘left’ to a man with advanced Tourette’s syndrome who used medication to hold down a day job during the week then let loose as a gifted jazz drummer at the weekends.

Each patient’s story included many perspectives, opinions from the patient themselves, their nearest and dearest and Dr Sacks’ outside point of view. Unlike other clinical observation, it did not focus completely on what was lost, there were many positive notes from each situation that resonated with my natural optimism, such as the twins who communicated by quietly quoting prime numbers for each other to savour, or the people who came alive with artistic genius when performing music or painting. There was some points that were genuinely interesting to remember, such as many people requiring the feeling of a ghost limb for a prosthesis to actually work for them and realising just how much of one’s identity is derived from memory.

When we discussed it over cups of tea and pizza the other night, nobody owned up to having enjoyed reading it. I don’t think it was the authors intent to entertain, but it was certainly thought provoking and even scary in places. I don’t like things rocking my juvenile sense of immortality and reading about other people who’s very selves have been injured was a useful reality check, although it did also point out that there is always hope and a way forward.

I got the distinct impression that Dr Sacks wasn’t a very experienced author at this stage in his career. I felt some stories were more polished than others, sometimes the author resorted to refering to cultural stereotypes to quickly get a point across. I wondered for a while if this were actually an anthology from a number of authors, but instead believe this spanned a fair number of years of his professional work. There’s also an interesting shift in language in the nearly 30 year time gap, with some words being technically correct but carry much more sterotypical and meaning from their use in today’s culture. I wonder how many words would be changed by copy editors if it were to be written in this decade.

The bottom line is that it’s a bit like the film The Rabbit Proof Fence. I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad I’ve read it and I think it’s a good addition to my book collection, even though I very doubt I’ll open it again.