Sunday, 11 May 2008

Review: "The Man with a Shattered World" by A. R. Luria

Although I read little non fiction in general, one exception has been the work of Oliver Sacks, whose writing I enjoy, and whose topics are almost always entertaining and engaging. I picked up "The Man with a Shattered World" largely because Sacks wrote the introduction, and because it sounded as though it would be a nice companion to "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and other works already in my library.

I was not disappointed. "The Man with a Shattered World" is one of two biographies published at the end of A. R. Luria's distinguished career as a neuropsychologist. The book tells the story of Zazetsky, a soldier in the Second World War whose brain injury instantly transformed him from a bright young man on the verge of finishing his engineering degree to an illiterate unable to perform any meaningful work or even hold a simple conversation.

Zazetsky discovered that he was still able to write by rote (although reading even his own writing was a tortuous process), and was able to chronicle his injury and its effects. Although he never recovered as fully as he hoped, Zazetsky struggled to improve himself in what ways he could and did make some small progress. Given that he initially could not even recognize the Cyrillic alphabet and at his best could barely read more than two words at a time, the fact that he was able to write over 3,000 pages of journal entries over the course of 30 years is as inspiring as the moon landing.

Between the numerous journal entries, Luria intersperses observations, brain science, and other narrative details. He provides the structure that Zazetsky himself could not, but with a light hand, so that the journal entries themselves shine through. This combination of subjective detail (from Zazetsky) and objective detail (from Luria) is what makes the book so enjoyable and comprehensible.

A very good read, both informative and inspiring. I look forward to picking up a copy of the other biography ("The Mnemonist") at some point in my travels.

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