I’m putting these two books together becuase they both strike me as similar reads and I found the same issue with each. That said, they are different books and cover different subject matter.
In An Anthropologist On Mars Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist known for writing books detailing case studies of his patients, here takes a look at seven different people, ranging from an artist who suddenly loses the ability to perceive color to a brain surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome to a man who has completely lost the ability to capture short term memory and lives his life in a perpetual 1969. There are also several stories relating to art and the process in which it goes from the mind’s eye and onto the paper.
This is my first exposure to Sacks outside of the film Awakenings, which was based on one of his earlier books and I’d been looking forward to reading his work. My first thought was that it was a fascinating look at these maladies. He’s able to interact with these people (not many of whom are actually patients, just people in whose cases he had developed an interest) both in a clinical setting and, more often, out in the real world. He’s an excellent writer and in these pieces, he’s able to step back and actually deliver case history of the person as well as background of the particular afflictions, trying to place the then current research (teh book was published in 1995) into historical context.
The stories kept me interested. As a writer, I wondered about the dramatic possibility of these diseases and the people who live with them. I also wondered about the connection. Was there a unifying theme or exploration which tied these seven essays together?
Jon Ronson‘s book, Lost at Sea, on the other hand, is a collection of 24 essays, grouped by 4s into six categories with titles like “The Things We’re Willing to Believe” and “Stepping Over The Line.” Ronson is a journalist with a penchant for looking at the crazies among us (his previous works include The Psychopath Test and Them: Adventures with Extremists). Like Sacks, I first discovered Ronson through the cinema. His book The Men Who Stare at Goats was turned into a movie of the same title with George Clooney and I’d heard he was described as a Gonzo journalist so I was looking forward to getting a listen (I listened to both books, Ronson actually read his book, which again goes to show most authors shouldn’t read their own works).
The stories pieces vary in length and tone but are generally interesting. Ronson’s in story persona, that of a middle class Jewish schlub who is just doing his thing is both disingenuous and at times annoying. He gets access to people “who never give interviews to anyone” and other stories just drop in his lap (nothing against that, but as a well known journalist who makes between $250-500 thousand a year, at least own up to your station in life). As a “Gonzo” journalist, the idea is that he’s embedded himself in the story to the point of blurring the objectivity lines. Except he doesn’t.
And this is where I quibble with both books. Both are written in the first person and the author is a character in the story they are telling, but both are generally outside observers who report what they see, but rarely offer commentary. After each of the 31 essays in both books, I found myself asking “why did you tell me that?” Yes, they were interesting stories about interesting topics, but that interest was tempered by the fact that rarely were we getting below the surface of any of it. Sure, Ronson went to a UFO Convention with Robbie Williams… But so what? We really didn’t learn much about Williams, or UFOs or what Ronson himself thought about the whole thing. Sacks’ descriptions of the neurology of his subjects had technical expertise, but very little heart and no explanations or theories. He would try things and ask questions, but none of it was scientific. It was all speculation and conjecture.
In the end, I learned these people and events existed, but not much more. Even when Ronson would try to make some sort of commentary, it was more of the obvious nature almost anyone could have come up with without spending time interviewing various subjects. Will I read either of these authors again? Probably. But now that I know what to expect, I’ll go in with much lower expectations.