Picks and Pans Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

updated 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Oliver Sacks

This splendid book, which deserves an award for the most provocative title of the year, was written by a professor of clinical neurology at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Each essay—there are more than two dozen—is based on a real patient's strikingly rare ailment or medical condition. The man in the title essay, a music teacher, is unable to recognize human features and did not know what a glove was: "He saw nothing as familiar. Visually, he was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions." "The Lost Mariner" is an amazing account of amnesia in a bright Navy veteran who remembers everything that took place in his life before 1945, but nothing after. "The Disembodied Lady" suffers from an inability to feel her own body, a condition that came on just before an operation. If she closes her eyes, she falls limp. It takes a year of intensive therapy before she is able to function again in the outside world, and every movement is self-conscious. Many of these case histories end unresolved, with the puzzle intact. One about a violent murderer who remembers nothing concludes, "All these questions remain a mystery to this day." But that fits the tone of the book perfectly. It is a perfect gift for your favorite hypochondriac. But there are more than enough strange ailments, described in surprisingly cozy narrative, to hold any reader entranced. (Summit, $15.95)

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