On Our Bookshelves:
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


BOOK: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

AUTHOR: Oliver Sacks (pictured above)



Oliver Sacks, neurologist and writer, recently died, having informed his readers earlier this year that his cancer was terminal. He wrote these brave and positive words in an op-ed piece in the New York Times: “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.  I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”


With that farewell in mind, I took another look at one of his books I’d read years before, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It’s a collection of clinical case studies of some of his patients with neurological disorders. It’s not a technical book for physicians, though; it’s written for a general audience, and tells of people with very odd aberrations: memory loss, the loss of fundamental spacial concepts (like left and right), agnosia (the inability to interpret sensations and recognize things, like the man in the title, who could describe a glove as “a continuous surface…infolded upon itself…with five outpouchings…a container of some sort” but had no idea what it was), a severe case of Tourette Syndrome, causing the patient to involuntarily shout obscenities, and a variety of others.


It’s not an easy read; it is, however, a fascinating one. Some have critiqued Dr. Sacks’ writing as exploitative of his subjects, and his descriptions of these strange anomalies as “freak shows.” Dr. Sacks himself, in response to such criticisms, told the Guardian: “I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill… but it’s a delicate business.” Personally, I’ve always considered his writing to be wise and compassionate, as he managed to bring out the humanity and many of the complexities of the people he wrote about, focusing on what made them special and positive, and not merely on their impairments.


In any case, his writing was elegant, his subject matter was extremely rich, and there’s no one else like him.  RIP, Oliver Sacks.  You will be missed by many.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3.5 Whistles





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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Oliver Sack’s Official Facebook Page


Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com