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Now in Paperback

June 21, 1987|ELENA BRUNET

The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory and The Man With a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound, A. R. Luria, translated by Lynn Solotaroff, forewords respectively by Jerome S. Bruner and Oliver Sacks (Harvard: $7.95 each). Aleksandr Romanovich Luria was professor of psychology at the University of Moscow. A specialist in neurological disorders, he recognized that the medical profession tended to reduce the "living reality with all its richness of detail to abstract schemas." Luria felt that a syndrome could not be analyzed apart from the human being: The two were integral parts of each other. In his own research, he sought to preserve "the wealth of living reality." These two books are compassionate and vivid portraits--he called them "neurological novels"--though they are in fact case histories of two patients whom he observed for 30 years.

"The Mind of a Mnemonist" is a study of a man whose memory was virtually limitless, both in how much it could absorb and how long it would retain what it had absorbed. The patient convert1701060727"Every sound he heard immediately produced an experience of light and color and . . . a sense of taste and touch as well." Such a memory seemed limited only in how the mind could use the information it stored. His mental processes tended "to rely exclusively on images and to overlook any possibility of using logical means of recall." As the patient himself put it, "Other people think as they read, but I see it all." The patient seemed unable to reflect on what he was perceiving or hearing, and was able only to make a living as a professional mnemonist.

"The Man With a Shattered World" is the poignant, courageous journal of Sub-Lt. Zazetsky, who suffered a head injury during combat in 1943, when shell fragments were lodged in the left parieto-occipital (top, rear) section of his skull. When Zazetsky regained consciousness, he wrote later, "I couldn't remember anything, I couldn't say anything. My head seemed completely empty, flat, hadn't the suggestion of a thought or memory, just a dull ache and buzz, a dizzy feeling." The patient didn't know that the shell fragments had destroyed the part of the brain that controls the "analysis, synthesis, and organization of complex associations into a coherent framework. . . ." His memory was gone; his vision was impaired. He could not "immediately combine his impressions into a coherent whole; his world (became) fragmented." However, his kinetic-motor skills were undamaged and he was able to write. It took a superhuman effort, yet Zazetsky worked on his journal for 25 years. In his writing, he was "fighting to re1668249189that through his writing, "the doctors will understand me. And once they understand me and my illness, they'll certainly be able to cure it." Luria pieced together his patient's recollections into this short volume and included his own observations. As Luria writes, "One would be hard put to say whether any other man has ever spent years of such agonizing work putting together a 3,000-page document that he could not read."

You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks, edited by Thordis Simonsen (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster: $6.95). Sara Brooks' rich and evocative narrative depicts the life of a black child growing up in the rural South in the early 20th Century. Based on 50 hours' worth of interviews, Thordis Simonsen transcribed and edited Brooks' words, retaining the integrity of her narrative. The story begins in 1905, when Sara's father, Will, began planting on rented land in west-central Alaba1835085344acres that he cultivated. The family was poor, but also self-sufficient and very religious. Every member of this large, extended family was expected to work on the farm--milking the cows in the morning and evening, chopping corn or baling cotton. "Laziness'll kill you," her father told her. Her youth was idyllic in many ways; the only trouble Sara remembers were squabbles among the children: "We'd tear up each other's clothes, we'd tear up each other's hat." Her father offered to send her to college but she dropped out of high school after her junior year: "I didn't know that me not goin to school would be hinderin me on down the line." A bad marriage caused her own family to be broken up. Her three children stayed with their grandparents while she lived and worked in Bainbridge, Mobile and Cleveland. She eventually was able to buy a house in Cleveland with her earnings, and she was able to bring her children together. "You May Plow Here" is the story of a proud, spirited, honest black woman whose family taught her to work and to love.

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