Friday, November 10, 2006

An Anthropologist on Mars: Oliver Sacks

Occasionally, there comes a book that makes you sit up and take notice of something that you may never have thought of all your life. To me, An Anthropologist on Mars was one such. This is a collection of seven “case histories” of people with neurological disorders, written by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Touching on disorders like cerebral achromatopsia, amnesia, Tourette’s syndrome, and autism, among others, Dr. Sacks paints a vivid picture of each of the patients, what they go through in life, and how they cope with their daily rituals.

People of the sciences can come across, especially in their writing, as belonging to a different world, speaking in a different language. Thankfully, not so Dr. Sacks. The simplicity of his language and expression ensures that you don’t need to be a neurologist to understand the cases.

The other outstanding feature of Dr. Sacks’s writing is the tone he uses to describe the patients and their problems. Not for him a tone of sympathy, pitying the patient for being deprived of senses most other human beings have. Not for him an excessive emphasis on the other strengths of the patients and a downplaying of their problems, thus pitching them as “special” people. The tone is brilliantly matter-of-fact, just putting things as they are. So unconsciously you end up seeing the patients as normal people.

Take the language and the tone together, and this book is probably worth reading purely for its literary merit. Overlay that with the insights you get on the human mind and how people respond to different challenges and address them in their own unique way, and you have a book that is worth owning, reading, and reading again. And again.

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