From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.
By Maria Popova
A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.
Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s own poignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.
In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:
Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.
In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:
My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.
Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:
The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…
In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.
Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.
Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.
- The Sense of Movement (public library) by Thom Gunn (1957)
- Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (public library) by Stephen Jay Gould (1989)
- Speak, Memory (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
- Childhood’s End (public library) by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
- Madame Curie (public library) by Eve Curie (1937)
- The Jungle Book (public library) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
- The Geological Story Briefly Told (public library) by James Dwight Dana (1875)
- Humphry Davy: Science and Power (public library) by David Knight (1998)
- Ulysses (public library | free ebook) by James Joyce (1922)
- The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (public library) by A.R. Luria (1968)
- Man with a Shattered World (public library) by A.R. Luria (1972)
- The Working Brain (public library) by A.R. Luria (1973)
- Higher Cortical Functions in Man (public library) by A.R. Luria (1966)
- Restoration of Function After Brain Injury (public library) by A.R. Luria (1963)
- The Nature of Human Conflicts; or Emotion, Conflict and Will (public library) by A.R. Luria (1932)
- The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
- On Certainty (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951)
- Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love (public library) by Deborah Wearing (2005)
- Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (public library) by Darold Treffert (1989)
- British Botanists (public library) by John Gilmour (1944)
- The Discovery of the Elements (public library) by Mary Elvira Weeks (1934)
- One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (public library) by Wade Davis (1996)
- Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (public library) by Wade Davis (2011)
- Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden (1976)
- Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799–1804 (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1852)
- Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1849)
- Humboldt and the Cosmos (public library) by Douglas Botting (1973)
- Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (public library) by Abraham Pais (1982)
- Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (public library) by Abraham Pais (1991)
- J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (public library) by Abraham Pais (2006)
- Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
- Einstein (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1973)
- Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1984)
- Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings in Science (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1993)
- Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2004)
- Chemical Recreations: A Popular Manual of Experimental Chemistry (public library) by J.J. Griffin (1860)
- Practical Chemistry (public library) by William George Valentin (1908)
- The Chemistry of Common Life (public library) by J.F.W. Johnston (1855)
- The Chemical Pocket-Book or Memoranda Chemica (public library) by James Parkinson (1803)
- Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (public library) by Douglas McKie (1952)
- An Autobiographical Sketch (public library) by Justus von Liebig (1891)
- The Stars in Their Courses (public library) by James Jeans (1931)
- The Interpretation of Radium (public library) by Frederick Soddy (1922)
- Beyond Good and Evil (public library | free ebook) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)
- The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
- The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) by Israel Rosenfield (1992)
- A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (public library) by Esther Salaman (1970)
- Vision: A Computational Investigation of Visual Representation in Man (public library) by David Marr (1982)
- Art of Memory (public library) by Francis Yates (1966)
- The Great Mental Calculators (public library) by Steven Smith (1983)
- Human Personality (public library | free ebook) by F.W.H. Myers (1961)
- Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child (public library) by Lorna Selfe (1977)
- The Thread of Life (public library) by Richard Wollheim (1984)
- The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (public library) by Steven Mithen (2006)
- Hereditary Genius (public library) by Francis Galton (1869)
- Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (public library | free ebook) by Francis Galton (1883)
- Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (public library) by John Harrison (2001)
- Consciousness Lost and Found (public library) by Lawrence Weiskrantz (1997)
- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (public library) by Umberto Eco (2005)
- I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (public library) by Rodolfo Llinás (2001)
- Sound and Symbol (public library) by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956)
- Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr (1992)
- Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (public library) by Merlin Donald (1991)
- Time and the Nervous System (public library) by William Gooddy (1988)
- Memoirs of Hector Berlioz: From 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England (public library) by Hector Berlioz (1865)
- The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (public library) by Theodor Reik (1953)
- Room for Doubt (public library) by Wendy Lesser (2007)
- The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (public library) by Steve Lopez (2008)
- The (Strangest) Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice (public library) by Teri Sforza (2006)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (public library) by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
- Elegy for Iris (public library) by John Bayley (1999)
- The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library) by Robert Burton (1621)
- The Descent of Man (public library | free ebook) by Charles Darwin (1871)
- The Dance of Life (public library | free ebook) by Havelock Ellis (1923)
- Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (public library) by Howard Gardner (1983)
- Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return (public library) by Mary Ellen Geist ()
- Drumming at the Edge of Magic (public library) by Mickey Hart (1990)
- Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (public library) by John Hull (1990)
- Why Birds Sing (public library) by David Rothenberg (2005)
- The World as Will and Representation (public library) by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
- Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (public library) by Igor Stravinsky (1970)
- Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (public library) by William Styron (1990)
- The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
- Master and Man, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1895)
- The Fountain Overflows (public library) by Rebecca West (1956)
- Essays in Biography (public library) by Maynard Keynes (1951)
- The Garden of Cyrus (public library) by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
- The Perception of the Visual World (public library) by James Gibson (1950)
- Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (public library) by Nora Ellen Groce (1985)
- The Complete Short Stories (public library) by H.G. Wells (1966)
- Suburban Shaman (public library) by Cecil Helman (2006)
- Life Itself (public library) by Francis Crick (1981)
- Of Molecules and Men (public library) by Francis Crick (1966)
- Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (public library) by Francis Crick (1994)
- An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (public library | free ebook) by James Parkinson (1817)
- The Lost World (public library | free ebook) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
- Earth Abides (public library) by George Stewart (1976)
- Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (public library) by Erving Goffman (1961)
- Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (public library) by C.M. Parkes (1972)
- The Basal Ganglia and Posture (public library) by James Purdon Martin (1967)
- From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (public library) by Ilya Prigogine (1980)
- The Fractal Geometry of Nature (public library) by Benoit Mandelbrot (1982)
- The Body in Question (public library) by Jonathan Miller (1978)
- The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
- Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (public library) by Michel Foucault (1965)
- The Principles of Psychology (public library) by William James (1890)
- The Varieties of Religious Experience (public library) by William James (1902)
- The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (public library) by Robert E L Masters and Jean Houston (1966)
- Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems (public library) by Virginia Hamilton Adair (1996)
- Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (public library) by Molly Brinbaum (2011)
- Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing — and Discovering — the Primal Sense (public library) by Bonnie Blodgett (2010)
- The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance (public library) by Eva Brann (1991)
- A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials (public library) by Laurie Winn Carlson (1999)
- Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) by René Descartes (1641)
- Great Expectations (public library | free ebook) by Charles Dickens (1861)
- The Idiot (public library | free ebook) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1869)
- Brave New World (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1932)
- The Devils of Loudon (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1952)
- The Doors of Perception (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1954)
- Moby-Dick (public library | free ebook) by Herman Melville (1851)
- The Oxford English Dictionary (public library)
Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.
Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.
I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:
“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”
In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.
A gentle founding myth that pleased my romantic side.
The greatest neurological treasure of our time, for both thought and case description, is the works of A.R. Luria.
When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.
“You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.
Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
[It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.
A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.
Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)
Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.
Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.
But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).
When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.
This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.
There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.
Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.
Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.
For other notable selections of luminaries’ favorite books, see the reading lists of Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.