Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book 293: The Mind's Eye


"Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms -it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well as to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion.The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections—a network particular, it seems, to the human brain."

Dates read: February 1-5, 2019

Rating: 6/10

I was one of those rare kids that needed neither glasses nor braces. I have plenty of issues on the tooth front (so many crowns!), but they grew in straight. And while my vision has declined some over the years, I still can see when I wake up in the morning without having to do anything besides open my eyes. If I'm anything like my dad, I'll probably eventually need reading glasses, but I'm not there yet. It's not until I spend time with people who do need glasses/contacts do I think about being fortunate that I don't have to rely on something else to be able to be able to comprehend my visual environment.

But of course, not being able to see isn't the only thing that can go wrong with the process of vision. Getting input is just one part of it. Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye takes his usual case study format and applies it specifically to disorders of visual processing...some of which deal with the actual mechanical part of seeing, but others about the part where we transform that information into something that makes sense. There's a pianist who can no longer interpret the squiggles on a page of music as notes, but whose ability to memorize and play back what she's heard allows her to continue to enjoy and be successful in her field, a writer whose ability to read deteriorates even as he continues to be able to write, and people for whom faces remain untied to the ones they know and love.

What's a bit unusual for this series of case studies is how prominent Sacks himself is among them. Not as a doctor, which is his usual role, but as a subject. In discussing prosopagnosia (face blindness), he uses his own experiences to describe the condition and the challenges it can create. But where this self-insertion becomes somewhat problematic is in his description of stereo-blindness. This disorder is at first described using a patient who has had the condition for most of her life, but who learns to train herself to see with depth and her wonder and delight at the new world that opens up before her is enjoyable. But then he goes into an extended discussion of his own health crisis, with eye cancer, that led to a loss of his much-cherished stereo vision. It's self-pitying and grating in a way that's not typical of his work, even that which recounts personal struggles.

This book, despite being the kind of case study collection where he usually shines, is not Sacks' best. There's the issue I described above, and there's just a lack of coherence and breadth. Even when describing diseases that lead to significant neurological deficits, there's usually a sense of curiosity about what's wrong and cheerful surprise at the adaptations that people are able to make, that's infectious and engaging. While the book starts off that way, by the time it wanders into Sacks' experiences it gets heavy and clunky, and I found myself much less invested in it than I had been previously. If you're intrigued by the ways that perception can go wrong, or you (like me) are an incurable Sacks completist, there's some good stuff here. But if you're not otherwise interested, I don't think the good outweighs the bad significantly enough to recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man In The High Castle

Three years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Four years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Five years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

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