When I went to Town Hall last month to hear a lecture on scientifically important case studies of brain damage, I had no idea that the speaker would be the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb, two of my recent favorite pop-science books. It was a pleasant surprise not only to hear Sam Kean speak, but to get ahold of his latest book, The Dueling Neurosurgeons ("The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery").
I was expecting this to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks, albeit from a lay writer's perspective and featuring Kean's entertaining, conversational style. And I really wasn't wrong, but I still left the book feeling vaguely disappointed. It took me awhile to figure out why.
There is this trend in modern non-fiction to strain out all the boring parts like context and details in favor of wacky or funny stories. Certainly, there is plenty in science and history that is wacky and funny, and for subjects I don't know much about and/or am not too terribly interested in, this kind of book is an entertaining way to glean some new information. For instance, I find chemistry pretty dry, so The Disappearing Spoon was perfect for me. I am interested in genetics, but am hardly an expert, so The Violinist's Thumb sat fine with me, though I wished it had been meatier.
But I'm very interested in neuroscience and have been reading about it in some detail for many years. So the superficial focus of The Dueling Neurosurgeons grated on me a bit. It's not that none of the information was new to me - many of the case studies were unfamiliar, and others I'd known about but not in any detail - but for subjects I actually care about, I'd prefer a book be scientific first and wacky/funny second. In other words, I'd like an informative framework that gives me a deep understanding of the subject, with the fun stuff sprinkled in. I don't like a framework of weird stories, with some theory thrown in to back them up. If Kean couldn't find a weird story to illustrate a point, the point didn't get made. And that kind of shit annoys me.
Still, who doesn't like a weird story? Like the girl who lost her amygdala and so became incapable of feeling fear - it was interesting to read about how she reacted to things that would terrify an average person. Or the horrifying story of kuru - colonialism, cannibalism, pedophilia, horrific brain damage, and lethal laughing fits - all wrapped up into one appalling whole.
So this book scratches that itch I sometimes get for "beach-read nonfiction". I truly did enjoy it, but it was like licking off the frosting and leaving the cake untouched. Frosting is wonderful, you know, but it's so much better with some tasty cake to give it structure.