Sam Kean

Review: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The fact that Sam Kean has yet to win a major publishing prize is an oversight that must The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeonsbe righted this year. Kean’s previous books, The Disappearing Spoon (2010) and The Violinist’s Thumb (2012), were critically acclaimed best-sellers, but garnered no love from the folks at the Pulitzer and National Book Award.

Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society as one of the top science books of 2010, and Thumb was a finalist in the PEN literary science writing category, but the former is based in London and the latter prize went to another author.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery provides the prize judges with a chance to make it right.

As with his other books, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read. Kean’s appeal is his ability (like that of Mary Roach) to equally entertain and educate. He keeps you so absorbed in the narrative that you’re unaware how much you’ve learned until you hear yourself dropping scientific factoids at a dinner party.

With Kean, scientific advancement is never dull. He has a nose for the quirky, the quacky and the querulous.

However, his new book may be his most impressive yet, on a personal level. Part of what made Spoon and Thumb so interesting to me was the thrill of discovery. I knew little of chemistry and DNA before cracking them open.

Therefore, the true test of his writing prowess would be The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, a subject a bit closer to my wheelhouse. I never scored high in chemistry or biology, but I graduated with honors with a degree in psychology.

How interesting could he make this familiar subject?

Kean dug deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science, and he infused newfound wonder into time-worn stories, such as Phineas Gage. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

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