Most helpful critical review
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2014
This looks like a popular science book but reads like literary non-fiction. It minimizes the science, weaves in stories based on personal experience, draws on fiction, and is slow to get to the point. As an example of the minimisation of the science, take Chapter 2, which is about getting lost. It consists of 22 pages, of which only four pages are about the science – the working of the hippocampus. Having expected something that would get to the point quickly and explain experiments and theories in sufficient detail to be able to judge their merits, I was disappointed. But I’m giving it 3 stars because it’s well written, with paragraphing and all. I mention paragraphing because Charles Fernyhough’s frequent digressions while recounting a journey are vaguely reminiscent of the style of W.G. Sebald in “The Rings of Saturn”, only with paragraphing. He actually mentions another work by Sebald a couple of times, so he has probably been slightly influenced by that style.
Some topics are notable by their absence. Fernyhough gives evidence that memory depends on language, on having the vocabulary for the things you want to recall, yet also says that the dominant theory is the scene construction model, which posits that memory relies on the skill of our species at spatial processing. Why no adequate explanation of how the verbal and spatial findings fit together? Also, the phrase “our species” implies that the claims about spatial processing apply equally to the females and males of our species, yet there are sex differences in spatial abilities. Does this result in sex differences in memory? Why no mention of this?
And why does the author think that fictional accounts of memory are relevant, given that he himself points out that some intuitive beliefs about the workings of memory are wrong? Surely these incorrect beliefs are as likely to be held by novelists as anyone else?
Overall, “Pieces of Light” is like a memory foam mattress; it feels warm and comfortable when you first get into bed with it, but if you sleep on it, you wake up hot and uncomfortable.