Back in the pre-social-media late 20th century, it was The New Yorker magazine that “broke” many of my favorite authors. That’s where I discovered Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Literary categories were less Procrustean then, & readers were more adventurous. At the time, what made this book a sensation was Sacks’s extraordinary blend of curiosity, compassion, & academic rigor as a neurologist.
The case studies he presents here are astonishing, fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking. Each was referred to him because of some unusual, even bizarre, biochemical & physiological syndrome which sets this person apart from other people: the navy man whose memories ended around 1945; the elderly woman who suddenly began hearing loud Irish songs, like a radio that wouldn’t shut off; the distinguished musician of the title, who’d forgotten how to recognize a human face. Some of these patients frightened or repelled “normal” people, but Sacks approaches each one as a multifaceted person worthy of respect & help. He watches, he listens, he tries different tactics; he sets aside the judgment of others who dismiss the patient as defective, less than human. Often his best collaborator is the patient, who is more eager than anyone to find out what’s wrong & how to deal with it. Sacks’s expertise coupled with sympathy enables him to help nearly all of them.
But what kind of book is this? Sacks the healer & writer tells us heart-wrenching human stories — & emphasizes the need that humans have for stories, whether in the form of memories or constructed narratives that make up for inaccessible memories. Yet Sacks the neurologist is writing for his peers, in an era before political correctness ruled out classifications like “retarded” & “defective” (although he repudiates them). Some of the prose is so technical that any 21st-century editor would have refused to publish it. Yet when this book came out, it became a best-seller. Rereading it now, decades later, I was surprised to see how rare it’s become for such rich 3-D human interactions to be presented in a mostly accessible but sometimes stuffy medical style.
The rise of algorithms has encouraged modern publishers to underestimate their readers, much as Sacks’s fellow physicians tended to underestimate his patients, & likewise has led us as readers to underestimate our own ability to grapple with complex writing for the sake of illumination. This is a book that’s well worth reading, even if one chapter at a time.