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The Rag and Bone Shop - Veronica O'Keane ***

Many people don't realise how recently medicine has come to be scientific. This didn't really occur comprehensively with most areas of medicine until the second half of the twentieth century. The area that has arguably lagged far behind the rest is mental health, where outdated Victorian ideas (such as those of Freud) with no scientific basis have clung on, as if we still resorted to bleeding people to make them better.

Although the book centres on memory, Veronica O'Keane shows impressively how the increasing awareness of the impossibility of divorcing aspects of the mind from the physical aspects of the brain make it necessary to have a very different understanding of mental health issues. Often an understanding of physical problems with the brain have been developed from medical cases, and O'Keane takes us effectively and interestingly through some of these cases and the functions of the different parts of the brain relevant to memory and how problems with them can induce anything from amnesia to hallucinations.

There was a small issue with a brief foray into history of science, where O'Keane comments that heliocentrism 'effectively removed Earth from the creationist dogma of the Church. At that time, the belief systems of the Church had dominated thinking for one and a half thousand years.' This sounds like a recycling of the Victorian attempt to blame Christianity for the non-existent 'dark ages' and (leaving aside the fact the 'Church' didn't exist in this sense 1500 years before Copernicus and Galileo) totally overlooks the fact that Aristotelian physics - the norm in the 1500s - would simply not work without the Earth at the centre of the universe.

The only reason I haven't rated the book higher, though, is that I didn't enjoy reading it. The scientific content is great, but the way it's presented just didn't work for me. Sometimes the writing can be rather long-winded. For example, the entire chapter 2 boils down to 'we encounter/learn things through our senses', as if this is some sort of revelation. But for the rest, it's more about style: if some popular science is like a good action thriller this is more like reading literary fiction. If you enjoy literary fiction and 'intellectual' plays, this will make the book a delight. If you find the likes of Samuel Beckett and Proust pretentious and boring, (Beckett particularly is heavily referenced here) then it will make for a difficult read.

Overall, then, this is a marmite book. The content is great, but the presentation of that content will be wonderful to some and irritating to others. 

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Review by Brian Clegg

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