‘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…’
Mental health is one aspect of everyday life that is perhaps unique in as much as it is an endless source of fascination whilst also being consistently misunderstood. The idea that something can just go wrong in our minds to the extent that we lose all sense of self is a chilling yet awe inspiring concept. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat explores this dark corner of mental health in a way that is both clinical and yet beautifully human.
Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist and writer who is perhaps best known for his 1973 work Awakenings – a book that was adapted for the big screen and saw Robin Williams and Robert De Niro bag a trio of Oscar nominations. The Man Who Mistook… has not had the same level of attention but it feels like one of those books that makes the reader feel as if they are a member of a clandestine secret society. Indeed, it was in a beer garden in Whitby in the dead of the night when a friend of mine recommended this book to me with hushed tones and barely masked excitement. While parts of Sacks’ fourth book are funny and all of it is eye opening, some of the philosophical questions that he poses are deeply troubling. And as a man who is all about being deeply troubled as often as possible, I loved this book.
The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat suffers from visual agnosia – an extraordinary condition that means that he can no longer process the things he sees in front of him. This is just one of several jaw dropping clinical studies that Sacks draws from to ensure that this million-copy bestseller is deserving of its critical and commercial success.
If you are the kind of weirdo that likes to ruminate on what it means to be alive, to be aware, to have a soul, then this book is wholeheartedly for you. And if you don’t wonder those things, perhaps you have a worrying neurological condition of your own…