Lately, I’ve been more interested in books that explore psychology. It’s always been a subject that fascinated me, but I haven’t read very much about it. When I read the synopsis for The Perpetual Now, I knew I had to read this book. I’ve seen a lot of movies and fiction dealing with memory loss and amnesia (Fifty First Dates comes to mind), and I thought it would be interesting to read a similar true story.
(From Goodreads) In the aftermath of a shattering illness, Lonni Sue Johnson lives in a “perpetual now,” where she has almost no memories of the past and a nearly complete inability to form new ones. The Perpetual Now is the moving story of this exceptional woman, and the groundbreaking revelations about memory, learning, and consciousness her unique case has uncovered.
Lonni Sue Johnson was a renowned artist who regularly produced covers for The New Yorker, a gifted musician, a skilled amateur pilot, and a joyful presence to all who knew her. But in late 2007, she contracted encephalitis. The disease burned through her hippocampus like wildfire, leaving her severely amnesic, living in a present that rarely progresses beyond ten to fifteen minutes.
Remarkably, she still retains much of the intellect and artistic skills from her previous life, but it’s not at all clear how closely her consciousness resembles yours or mine. As such, Lonni Sue’s story has become part of a much larger scientific narrative one that is currently challenging traditional wisdom about how human memory and awareness are stored in the brain.
The Perpetual Now was a fascinating read. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. I loved how the author really made Lonni Sue a complex character, because it made me care about her – and her story – so much more. I enjoyed reading about her interactions with family and friends. For me, that’s what made the story the most real, and gave it the most impact.
I liked Lonni Sue a lot. She’s incredibly interesting and intelligent – which makes her condition that much more devastating. I found reading about her life to be very enjoyable, and I really loved getting to know her. Even though I’ve caught glimpses (in fiction) of her condition before, this is the first time I really tried to put myself in that position (without humor). There are things I couldn’t have even imagined – like the fact that when you have this type of amnesia, it’s not only impossible to remember certain things from your past, it’s impossible to plan for the future, because you have no memory of your own preferences. You can’t decide what you want to eat, because you have no idea what foods you like or don’t like. Details like this one really helped me understand how amnesia (particularly cases as severe as Lonni Sue’s) impact patients’ lives on a very basic level.
One unexpected part of this book was the introduction of Henry Molaison, the famous first patient with Lonni Sue’s condition. It was interesting to see how science and psychology has changed since Molaison was first studied in the 1950s. I enjoyed reading about Molaison as well, but some of the parallels the author draws between Molaison and Lonni Sue (and her family) were a bit of a reach. For example, he spends a full paragraph or two talking about where and when Molaison and Lonni Sue’s father may have crossed paths decades before Lonni Sue was even born. In my opinion, that was a bit unnecessary, and kind of detracted from the rest of the story.
I also think this book could have been a bit more successful – in my opinion – had it eliminated a lot of the filler text. Lemonick spends full chapters talking about Lonni Sue’s parents and grandparents – how they met, where they went to school, what their ambitions were. And while that was interesting, I felt like it was a bit too much; it went too in-depth. From the synopsis (see above), I’d assumed this book was solely about Lonni Sue. And it is definitely about her case. But the author gives a lot of time to Henry Molaison, his family, and Lonni Sue’s family. I found myself wishing it was a bit more concise. I enjoyed the book as a whole, but a lot of the background information seemed tangential, and I wanted to get back to the main story.
Overall, I did really enjoy this book and would recommend it. It was an interesting take on a subject I’m not familiar with, and gave insight into an experience I probably wouldn’t have given as much thought to, or even remotely understood. It was an impactful story, and if you’re looking for a book that will make you think, this is a great choice.
The Perpetual Now is available starting tomorrow – February 7. You can get your copy here!
This book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.