The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

hatby Oliver Sacks
3 of 5 stars

My grandfather recommended this book to me in December, and since I’m trying to read more broadly this year (i.e. not solely YA fantasy!) I picked it for this month’s nonfiction read. It was both more interesting and more dull than I expected, but overall I am glad to have read it because the content is truly unique.

I think the best way I can describe this short but dense book is this: imagine a cold Sherlock telling you about uncommon brain disorders and their symptoms. He goes into anecdotal detail with a precision that sometimes coasts above your head, and with an enthusiasm that seems inappropriate at times given the patients’ often-horrific circumstances. (Although Sacks does occasionally express regret and concern over the emotional states of the victims).

These clinical reports are given some narrative structure and are organized into similar manifestations of brain dysfunction (losses, excesses, transports, the world of the simple) and each chapter isn’t very long. Each one provides details on the life and treatment of one patient’s disease, which at times has afflicted them since birth, and other times develops after an accident or very late in life. Some of them sound like something you’d make up for a sci-fi thriller or mystery: the inability to remember faces, or anything past a certain date; the inability to feel your own body; the inability to recognize common objects like gloves, shirts, or your own hands; continually hearing the same songs over and over in your mind—things that leave these people perpetually bewildered and confused in their own lives. Occasionally treatment can recover a fraction of what they’ve lost or struggle with, but overall this is a series of encounters with people who will never be cured.

It’s interesting, and you feel the utter fascination of the writer, but it’s difficult to read at times and leaves you chilled for the people experiencing the diseases. I’d recommend this if you want to feel better about your own life’s circumstances or if you’re curious about the different sections of the brain and how they interact.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova – Another analysis of the brain, in particular how our memories work and how we can organize our minds to prevent forgetfulness.
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller – A fascinating and moving look at the author’s childhood in Africa during civil unrest. She’s written several memoirs about her atypical life in different African countries and has a direct perspective that cuts to the heart of her experiences. I highly recommend her.
  • This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin – Although this book doesn’t actually answer the question of why we love the types of music we love, and why music is so emotional for humans, it does cover a lot of fascinating information regarding music and its integral relationship to our lives.
  • Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner – If Sacks made you a bit uncomfortable with his study of brain damaged patients, this will make you uncomfortable with its examination of societal issues. They also have a podcast which explores some of these issues. One of my favorite books for presenting alternate perspectives on the world (whether or not you end up agreeing with them).

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