All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

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From Excess to Transport

A Review of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat around January 2016, more than 4 years ago. I, recently, had started listening to the backlog of the podcast Radiolab and had learned to love the voice and insight of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. I read this book on my commute to university and back and loved the various case stories and how much they told me about my brain.

So when 2020 hit with its CoViD-19-related lockdowns, I first picked it for readings to dispel the quarantine boredom and loneliness. Its separate chapters lent themselves well to being read aloud in a voice call. And so, for a few weeks, I took an hour each evening to read one or two chapters of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. However, this didn’t continue indefinitely, and with the ongoing pandemic, demand and energy to continue these almost daily readings to my friends fizzled out.

This left me with around a quarter of the book unread. Only now, months later, I picked it up again to finish the last chapters on my own. I have to admit I forgot a lot of details about the first half of these accounts. But I remember it fondly, just like Sack’s other books I read, like On the Move, or Gratitude.

Now, I am in a very stressful time in my life. I’m working on my transition. I’m trying to cope with the fact, that I have ADHD which took more than 22 years to diagnose, and I’m dealing with the shit show that is higher education while being disabled and trans. All that is culminating at the moment, with me starting HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) just last week, so please bear with me, if this is becoming a review a lot less extensive than usual.

A Mental Landscape, green hills, a giant calendar sticking up, weather symbols streaking across the sky, musical notes as trees

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has brought me a lot of joy and wonder in my world. I love the voice Oliver Sacks finds to tell the world about medicine and neurology, and I’m enthralled by the way he manages to lift up mere case studies int0 human stories with real connections.

I don’t have the experience to examine the influences on his case study writing, Sacks lists — among them Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander R. Luria — but I am content with appreciating this little blue paperback with its broad pages for what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

drawing inspired by medieval illustrations in the manuscripts of Hildegard von Bingen

The only thing that mucked up the waters for me is my general discomfort around medical language, especially around cognitive disabilities. And while Oliver Sacks argues to view these disabilities not as mere lists of defects, but as part of a whole person with their own will, and thoughts, and ideas, I can’t separate that from the usage of words that are so intrinsically linked with medical and cognitive ableism.

First published in 1985, of course, this book carries the signs of its time, especially in the field of neurology and psychiatry, where changes in activism have moved a lot once immovable truths of life.

As a whole, this book just remains very enjoyable, informative and moving. And if you, like me, have an intense interest in how our brains work and interpret the world I could not recommend this book more highly, though you definitely have to be prepared to live with the medical ableism this book contains by virtue of its origins and time.

This book isn’t a systemic review or a case and argument for a certain method or clinical praxis, it is mostly just a view into the weird world of the brain. And so as it moves from the man who mistook his wife for a hat, to the autistic young adult who lights up at the chance to draw, you might catch the sense of wonder I did, even if that was again and again tarnished by the disregard for autonomy that is so inherent in mental health care.

Other books by Oliver Sacks I have reviewed so far:

My last book review was about the way less wonderous Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. My last fiction review was about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Up next is Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.

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1 Comment

  1. Chirag

    Going to pick up the book now!

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