Monday, 3 July 2017

Review: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks


What an awful book. 

I have seen many rave reviews for Oliver Sacks -- the New York Times calls him "one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century". I've seen a book I bought a while back acclaimed for doing for botany what Oliver Sacks did for neurology. I've seen this book in particular called his best work. 

So what on earth did I just read?

This book presents ~24 case studies of patients with interesting neurological disorders, from amnesia to Tourette's to an inability to recognise anything in a concrete sense (i.e. abstract recognition maintained for maths, but couldn't recognise faces/familiar objects). 

Some of the stories are interesting. I'm sure many of them could be if told by a better writer. But that's about the only redeeming quality this book has. Let's see:

First and foremost, it's extremely insulting, diminishing and offensive, especially for a book that's supposed to be about humanising people with these disorders and finding their strengths -- it just becomes incredibly condescending. I can somewhat understand him referring to patients as "retardates" and "morons" if those were the terms at the time (1985), but then you get him introducing characters as "hopelessly retarded", and seeing a diagnosed autistic boy capable of drawing a rudimentary picture and saying "Autism? No", or saying "imagination, playfulness, art, are precisely what one does not expect in idiots, or idiots savants, or in the autistic either" (although he does say "Such at least is the prevailing opinion" afterwards, but really?). 

Oh, and "he was returned permanently to his family as a 'fulltime" epileptic, autistic, perhaps aphasic, retarded child", "The abstract, the categorical, has no interest for the autistic person -- the concrete, the particular, the singular is all. Whether this is a question of capacity or disposition, it is strikingly the case. Lacking, or indisposed to, the general, the autistic seem to compose their world entirely of particulars. Thus they live, not in a universe, but in what William James called a 'multiverse', of innumerable, exact, and passionately intense particulars. it is a mode of mind at the opposite extreme from the generalizing, the scientific". Well Mr Sacks, as an autistic scientist I think your mind is at the opposite extreme from the scientific.

He portrays himself as a compassionate doctor but spends the book wondering whether his patients are people at all, since they've lost some faculty or other. 

The book is filled with unnecessary academic jargon and obscure references -- obviously I like scientific terminology but this wasn't that, he just kept referring to Luria's work as if we all knew what Luria did and liked him. Obviously Sacks admires Luria very much, but frankly I couldn't give a crap about him and it doesn't add to the book at all, this fanboying of Luria. 

 I will admit I don't know much about neurology, but wow the way he writes sure makes it seem like pseudoscience, like some mystical thing that he as grand practitioner can make sense of.

He also fills the book with purple prose -- gratuitous, self-satisfied writing. I couldn't stand it -- I just wanted the information, nicely presented, and he gave interesting information but infused with a lot of his own opinion and commentary that I really didn't agree with. 

I especially didn't agree with his whole thing about the "right brain" and his diminishing of the importance of abstract and analytical skills. He wanted something romantic and mystical out of neurology, and actively made the field less scientific, from what I can see.

I was very very tempted not to finish the book but pushed through for this review and yup, no good cohesive story or common thread appeared. Don't waste your time or money on it. 

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