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

Constantly my patients drive me to question, and constantly my questions drive me to patients – thus in the stories and studies which follow there is a continual movement from one to the other.

Why it is Unusual that I Read it:

So I don’t usually do non-fiction. For the most part, I am a fictionovore, choosing to see how the world has been reinvented and refocused through literature’s lens rather than encountering a series of facts and conclusions without a strong narrative housing. But I know there is good and engaging and thought-provoking non-fiction out there, so I’m trying to introduce the occasional non-fiction into my diet.

Fortunately my fellow blogster handed me Oliver Sack’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, which is a book I have had my eye on for nearly a decade. I thought this meant that I had wanted to read it since it came out, but it turns out it was actually published in 1985 (whoops). The book is a series of case studies regarding patients with brain problems with extreme results, such as a loss of facial recognition, memory loss, or phantom limbs.  I have been intrigued by the idea of a man who actually mistakes his wife for a hat ever since encountering the story in passing in introductory psychology classes.

Why this Book is Great:

To begin with, there is something infinitely fascinating about the depths and complexities of the human brain and how spectacularly it can break. The case studies, taken from multiple publications by Oliver Sacks over this career, reveal events and effects stranger than most fiction. But what makes this book great, what brings it above a textbook representation of psychological voyeurism, is the warmth and humanity that the author and doctor displays towards these men and women suffering from afflictions of which they are sometimes not even aware.

Seriously, I want to be friends with Oliver Sacks. Throughout the book, he talks about how doctoring needs to remember the humanity of its patients while in the midst of the science and that, especially in afflictions of the mind, it is crucial when treating them to remember the person trapped within the whims of brain chemistry. His warmth and care and compassion comes through on every page and means that as you learn about the different cases and bizarre results of brains gone amuck, you also feel that the book has a genuine central narrator who you follow along while he reminisces about his career and the strange encounters it has provided him and how his views were shaped by the people and problems he faced.

The book also provides wonderful additional context, explaining how sections which were published as articles provoked change or revelations. In some cases, published cases which were initially presented as singular events resulted in communications from across the country and world of other doctors or sufferers who had thought they were alone in discovering or dealing with these afflictions. Guys guys, this book was GREAT.

Where I read it:

Confession time, I read this book AGES ago and then decided I was too busy to tell you about it because I am a horrible person. I think I was travelling? It is an excellent travel book as you can read it in small bites but it is also engrossing enough to get you through a long plane trip. I do not remember where I was going, but it is possible I was going to New Zealand and I forgot that this was the book I had with me because there were hobbit holes and I got distracted by driving along mountain cliffs. There are a lot of mountains in New Zealand (fewer hobbits, but more than elsewhere).

Why the cover is Awesome:

The cover is genuinely part of what attracted me to this book before I discovered that Oliver Sacks sounds like one of the most lovely human beings on the face of the earth. It is a riff on the Magritte painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which is the famous piece from the French Surrealist movement where the painter does a painting of a pipe and then captions it “this is not a pipe” to demonstrate that the image of a thing is not the thing itself. The cover, as you can see below, is of a bowler hat with the caption “Ceci est ma femme.” or “this is my wife” which I think is clever on So Many levels and I seriously want to give this cover designer an award or at least a high five.

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2 responses to “Oliver Sacks: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

  1. That cover was actually the reason I first discovered Oliver Sacks. I was in an airport somewhere (Melbourne?) and the combo of fantastic title and Magritte-inspired cover (I was then newly fascinated with surrealism) were what made me pick it up. One of the best purchases I ever made.

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