29 September 2006

A lifetime of Mondays

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
(ISBN 0-06-097079) is a mind-stretching book discussing what it means to be human, to have a soul, and to live a productive life by reflection upon the experiences of individuals damaged in some way by mental illness. I can hardly imagine a life such as those he describes; the closest my imagination can come is to envision a lifetime of Mondays, stretching out forever - and I may not be aware of it. Sacks' open, uncomplicated approach to his patients allows him to see more deeply and truthfully into their situations than most persons in comprable positions.

One interesting theme throughout the work is the interplay between disease and ability. In some cases, the disease of the patient disables the patient; in others, clearly the disease is associated with greater ability by the patient. Most of us are probably most aware of only the debilitating side of disease, but Sacks offers interesting tales of people enabled by disease - individuals with vast musical knowledge and deep resevoirs of appreciation for sound, a set of twins who approach numbers as friends (even up to 12-digit primes), and a woman who compensated for a loss of proprioception or kinesthetic self-awareness by using her sight.

Sacks' acceptance of these individuals for who they are informs these anecdotes and offers a model worthy of note. Especially endearing to me was the steadfast determination to accentuate the positive and identify and play to the strengths of each person, rather than focusing only on compensatory mechanisms for their weaknesses.

Note to Sacks: the website photo of you (above) is much improved over your book jacket photo. :)