The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

It’s fascinating to me what lies, even thrives, on the edges of humanity. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the middle, among the unsung masses, the insignificant majority–the irony of wanting our children to be normal and special. There are, of course, many such ‘edges’. It could be genius-level (standard linguistic-mathematical) intelligence. It could be idiot savantism. (It could be riding a motorcycle too fast down Highway 1 or damning the lives of a billion people.)

It’s hard to believe I’ve never read Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I’ve always know this book (always: there was no moment when I first saw it’s cover or heard it’s title, my brain has redacted the memory of that first discovery by telling itself that it has always know the book), but never looked inside. The downside to reading (almost) only fiction. Neurological disorders are so interesting.[1] There really are cases documented by reliable medical practitioners of people who have perfect recall of their entire lives to the minutest detail, of people who can ‘count’ instantaneously the number of matches scattered accidentally onto the floor (as popularised in Rainman). There really are recorded cases of brain damage where the part of the brain that is damaged is the part of the brain that tells the brain that a part of it is damaged (like the Grebulon ship in Mostly Harmless), of amnesiacs who can’t remember their amnesia, or patients who can’t recognise their own body. It really opens your mind to what our brains are really capable of and all the things that can go wrong. This stuff is real!

-Reading the Why

[1] As are experiments into consciousness like the rubber hand illusion or the barbie doll illusion.



Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

You’ve probably noticed that I like books, but I don’t have as many as you may think. Most I’ve sold or given away. Right now, I only have 80 or so novels, a handful of Leunigs (certain to be the name of his next collection), and a dozen art books.

I left my home town 12 years ago with a backpack of essentials, leaving behind everything else at friends’ houses, including all my books and comics. I wish I could remember which book I took with me on my trip out, that would be amazing to know. I moved to Airlie Beach, a small backpacker town where I stayed about a year before travelling down the coast to Melbourne. I was there a year too. From there I moved to the UK where I lived in London and worked two winters and stayed in Cambridge and travelled Europe two summers. At the end of two years, I again packed my backpack and moved to Germany where, a few months later, I settled in Berlin. Two years later, I moved cities once more, but I returned to Berlin less than a year later. In Berlin I’ve lived in 4 separate flats. The point is, I’ve had to sell, gift, abandon a lot of books over the years.

Luckily I don’t like a lot of what I read (the why of that I’ve probably explained elsewhere, or I will again soon). Moving so often, I tried not to accumulate too many books. I borrow from the library, I inherit books when friends move away, and I fail to resist picking up second hand books at flea markets. It’s only recently that I’ve started to re-buy some of my favourites, what I call my comfort books, books I’ve read and loved and want to lend to friends to read. I usually don’t even read the copies I buy. My current living arrangement is the most stable I’ve had since I left home, and I’ve realised I may never be reunited with my books back in Australia.

I bought another selection of comfort books the other day. They were:

1. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams
2. Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
5. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

I also bought two books I hadn’t read before. One of them was Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson.

-Reading the Why

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Back when I was working at Hatchard’s bookshop in London, I asked all my friends there to give me a list of their top 5 must reads (plus a wildcard). I still have the lists. One of the girls S. listed books by Miranda July, Margaret Atwood and… wait, now that I think about it, Jeanette Winterson wasn’t actually on her list, though it should’ve been. So I guess I have no idea where I first came across her after all. Pity. Maybe this was all a ploy to tell you about making lists of your favourite books. My list at the time was:

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
2. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
4. About a Boy by Nick Hornby
5. Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
Wildcard: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t read enough female authors, there wasn’t a single one on my list! I want to, though, honest! So far, it just seems they don’t write the kind of books I like to read, and it’s not because my tastes are particularly ‘male’. I like stuff that is a bit different, a bit weird, a mix of comedy and philosophy. Winterson is like that, poetic and surreal, and I’m savouring every book of hers I can find. Please, if you know other female authors that I might like, let me know!

I’d also like to point out: three non-fictions in a row! I have NEVER read three non-fiction books in a row.

-Reading the Why

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is not my favourite writer. That honour belongs to Douglas Adams.(1) And Bill Watterson. Vonnegut is certainly up there,(2) and some of his books certainly count among my favourites. Maybe if I had ‘discovered’ his writings when I was younger, in my formative years, when whims stick longer and become immovable as the foundations of the edifice that is to become my ‘self’. Maybe when I’ve read all of his books, I can chair a committee to see where he ultimately ranks. I’m happy to still have a quite a few to enjoy.

I like Vonnegut for two reasons:

ONE: He wrote about posthumanity, without ever using such terms.(4) Like it says on the back cover of Galapagos: ‘Kurt Vonnegut takes you back one million years. To A.D. 1986–and the beginning of the human race.’ Because why would posthumans call themselves posthuman? Only today’s egoists would deign to regard the humans of the future and define them in relation to ourselves. They will just be humans, and everything else that came before them something less than.

TWO: He wrote comedy, fought the ills of the world with humour, and lost. As he put it in A Man without a Country, ‘Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally, you get just too tired, and the news is too awful, and humor doesn’t work anymore.’ That’s kind of how I feel about Seinfeld too.

So now that we know how it ends, let’s go back to 1976, back when it was still just funny?

-Reading the Why

(1) Why, you’re very welcome, Mr Adams.
(2) Along with Pynchon, Huxley, Nabokov, Robbins.(3)
(3) I seriously need to read more female writers.
(4) See my other blog: Be Less Human which is all about posthumanity.

The major problem–one of the major problems, for there are several–one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy