Friday 1 August 2008

Mrs. Hat

There are a few books I've finished over the last month, and not blogged about, but they're now all in boxes... I'm moving house on Wednesday, to the other side of Oxford, and my bookcase is moving tomorrow - thus I had to empty it, and consign all my books to boxes. I did, however, see my new bedroom for the first time today, and it has lots of shelves already there! Hurray! My books need no longer be in piles by my bed. I'm sure they will be, but at least it will be out of volition rather than necessity.

I can just about remember the book I finished early this morning, without fishing it out of the box, and it strays a little from normal Stuck-in-a-Book territory: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks. I started reading this two or three years ago, simply because the title captured me, somehow it got shelved (I think termtime and essays got in the way) and now I've finished. For those who don't know, it's non-fiction, described by Wikipedia thus: "
The book comprises 24 essays split into 4 sections which each deal with a particular aspect of brain function such as deficits and excesses in the first two sections (with particular emphasis on the right hemisphere of the brain) while the third and fourth describe phenomenological manifestations with reference to spontaneous reminiscences, altered perceptions, and extraordinary qualities of mind found in "retardates"

Gosh, doesn't that sound dull. Well, it isn't. Each chapter looks at certain patients/clients (as they were called, though Sacks rather disparages the term) and their medical predicaments - Sacks documents his interaction with these people, and his discovering why their conditions occur, without being too blinding-with-science. A woman who can only see the left-hand side of any object; twins who can identify the day of the week for any date over a span of 8000 years; the man, indeed, who mistook his wife for a hat. What makes this book interesting is twofold - the amazing things which the brain can do or cease to do, or ways in which illness can manifest itself, but secondly, and more importantly, the compassion and humanity with which Sacks describes the cases under consideration. One feels he was bucking a trend in his field of medicine in 1985, when the book was published, and has hopefully led the way. A unique compendium, perhaps, and one which is sometimes upsetting, often enlightening, and always fascinating.


  1. Just think of all those delicious decisions you will have to make - will you arrange books by colour, size, alphabetically, themed? On my shelves - if they were in any sort of order, which they are not - E.F. Benson's Lucia would sit next to Isabella Bird on her journey through the Rocky Mountains - what if she should want to join her? Two formidable ladies like that - think of the clashes there would be: a grizzly would be as nothing compared to them!

  2. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for Hat is utterly wonderful, I think. In fact Oliver Sacks is a hero of mine.

    I heard him talk at the Royal National Geographical Society aeons ago about the emotional moonscape that is Parkinson's disease, and his description of the small, vital vestige of a fin that we all have just behind our earlobes - which quivers when we are in danger - mesmerised me.

  3. Hurray for a bit of psychology!
    The one that got me was the anterograde amnesia guy - it's not that uncommon but his case was particularly sad.

    This is the book I said I'd read on my personal statement, but accidentally stated the author as "Andrew Sachs" - who is the guy who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers. I thought they probably wouldn't ever mention that mistake in my interview. But yes, my future tutor actually brought it up, and that was when I truly thought, "I'll get me coat". Who knew they'd still let me in? :o)

    This book is one of the reasons I decided to study psychology! Well done Dr Sacks (not Sachs).


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