“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” – Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks has been on my “to-read” list as an author for quite some time and I was especially excited when it was picked as the book of the month within one of my book clubs. It ended up being such a fascinating read and I can’t wait to discover more of the author’s works!!! I would suggest this book to those who are curious about the human psyche, about the functionings (and the malfunctions) of the brain, about what really makes us the person that we are, about medicine in general and those who are interested in discovering the most peculiar patients’ stories, told in an extremely heartfelt and compassionate way.

With the rise of technological medicine and all its wonders, it is equally important to preserve the personal narrative, to see every patient as a unique being with his own history and strategies for adapting and surviving.

p. 261

To me, this was a one-of-a-kind type of book. I have never ventured much into a medical reading sphere besides some works touching upon psychological topics, such as Lori Gottlieb’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” or Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers“. Having nevertheless always been interested in the way the brain works, how it controls the body and how it ultimately makes up our entire persona, this one captured my interest from the very first page on. Throughout the reading time, Oliver Sacks managed to convey such touching descriptions and to draw vivid metaphors, so that I additionally ended up processing philosophical ideas. What happens if you lose your memory from one day to the next? What kind of “superhuman” capabilities already exist within us but only come out under unexpected circumstances? Or what really is the essence of our time here on Earth?

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing…” – Luis Buñuel

p. 25

What I can strongly suggest to you, if you have become interested in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, would be to rather start reading the author’s books in the chronological order they were published in. Or at least, to start with “Awakening“. A lot of references and comparisons were brought up to his previous works and I felt like you would have a deeper understanding of this book, if you went into reading it with a certain basis of background knowledge. Even though there were a couple of little parts that were quite medical, the excellent storytelling always took the upper hand in keeping you involved and interested in the stories.

I kept wondering, in this and later notes – unscientifically – about a ‘lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots […]. What was life without connection? ‘I may venture to affirm’, Hume wrote, ‘that we are nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’

p. 32

There were just so many fascinating aspects about this book that it’s a challenge to sum it all up. The writing is so full of curiosity and empathy while it dissects the human being as some kind of an alien life form. The most other-worldly states of mind are explained, such as the Tourette’s syndrome, whereas also going into the reflections of how a disease can become a part of one’s personality and how medicine can hardly ever give one a “perfect solution”. It is really reassuring to read these reflections by someone who is really looking for the “depths” in people, what makes them special. It must be disturbing to exist in an imposed “normality” of our society and this book awakens one’s sensibility towards how different human beings can be.

We paid too much attention to the defects of our patients, as Rebecca was the first to tell me, and far too little to what was intact or preserved. To use another piece of jargon, we were far too concerned with ‘defectology’, and far too little with ‘narratology’, the neglected and needed science of the concrete.

p. 193

This is an absolute suggestion from my side and this book has already made it onto the list of my favourites of this year. It made me even more drawn to the studies of psychology, an interest towards which have already been present within me for a while. To sum it all up in the simplest way, this is a special kind of masterpiece describing how amazing it is that a squishy organ situated in the upper part of a container of flesh controls everything about what there is to us! 😀

“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” – Oliver Sacks

★★★★★ (5/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-1-4472-7540-4
Picador, 2015 (originally published 1985)

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