By Sacha Eyles-Owen, Year 10
This book, by Oliver Sacks, explores the stories of some neurological disorders. There are case studies of people who are unable to recognise their own limbs and others of sufferers of severe agnosia (the inability to recognise objects and people for what they are- literally).
Who would enjoy/benefit from reading this book?
I particularly enjoyed reading this book as I have an interest in neurology, more specifically with those disorders that affect our perception of objects and people- hence why the title intrigued me. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out about the lesser known side of neurology, by reading case studies in language that can be easily understood. It may be helpful if you are unsure as to whether neurology- or medicine generally- is a subject which may interest you. This book also deals with the effects of a neurological disorder on a more personal level, also looking at how a person life and relationships are affected, so may also interest someone interested in looking into the effects of ill mental health.
How is it structured? Does this structure make it easier to read?
This book is split into four sections: losses, excesses, transports and the world of the simple. Each section contains short chapters (summarised case studies), each relating to the section in which it has been placed. Since each chapter is an individual story, it gives you the ability to jump around and pick out a chapter which you think you may enjoy more than others. This might be an advantage if you prefer small chunks of writings as opposed to large ones, however it can make the book easy to pick up and put down again rather than reading the book as a hole. I would recommend reading it as you would a normal book- from cover to cover- as some of the stories which I thought would not interest me actually did. If I had not read it like this I would have been very tempted to skip certain chapters.
What was your favourite chapter?
As I have already mentioned I have a fascination with disorders affecting our perception of objects and people. After reading this book I can now tell you that the disorder is called visual agnosia, it is the condition which affected the man after whom the book is named- the man who mistook his wife for a hat. Named only as Dr. P, the first story in the book describes his struggles with the identification of both the animate and inanimate objects (although primarily the animate), whereas others with the same condition struggled only with one. As I have never researched visual agnosia, the book partly explained the condition but also how certain traits of the condition can have an effect on a person’s life and relationships.
Do you have a favourite quote(s) from the book? If so why?
My favourite quotes are:
“If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”
“But the saddest difference between them was that Zazetsky, as Luria said, ‘fought to regain his lost faculties with the indomitable tenacity of the damned,’ whereas Dr P. was not fighting, did not know what was lost. But who was more tragic, or who was more damned — the man who knew it, or the man who did not?”
I like these quotes because the first made me question what it means to lose your sense of self, which tends to lead to a more philosophical debate. But it also made me wonder whether it would be better to lose your sense of self and not to know what you lost, or to know what you lost but know it. This exact thought was then written later on in the book and is the second quote. This more philosophical undertone to this book separates it from other similar books, because it is not purely about the medical side of the conditions and their causes.
What other books you would recommend to those who have read, and enjoyed, this book?
From an academic point-of-view ‘The Private Life of The Brain’ by Susan Greenfield explains some of the complex chemistry happening in our brains when we have different experiences of emotions. However, unlike other book on similar subjects, it should not be necessary to sit beside a computer to look up every other word of jargon. Also, Susan Greenfield has a written style that is simple and very straight-forward, which is especially useful when you are trying to understand to of the more complex ideas in the book and overall makes for a read which is fascinating without making your brain hurt.
‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ is book which tells the little known story of the woman who was behind one of a great step forward in medical science- being able to cultivate cells in a lab. This has led to many discoveries about cancer, viruses, cloning, genetic mapping and the effects of the atomic bomb. Now her cells are bought and sold throughout the world, even though she never knowingly gave her consent and she (and her family) never received a penny of the millions generated from the production and distribution of her cells. The book also explores the bioethics behind using the cells and the legal battles over whether we really own our own bodies and the stuff we are made of.
Other interesting books I have read less recently:
- ‘The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time’ as a play or a book
- ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ by Mary Roach
The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman