Brain Pickings

Search results for “oliver sacks”

The Life of the Mind: Oliver Sacks’s 121 Formative and Favorite Books from a Lifetime of Reading

From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.

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.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

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.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)
  1. The Sense of Movement (public library) by Thom Gunn (1957)
  2. 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.

  3. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (public library) by Stephen Jay Gould (1989)
  4. Speak, Memory (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
  5. Childhood’s End (public library) by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  6. Madame Curie (public library) by Eve Curie (1937)
  7. 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.

  8. The Jungle Book (public library) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
  9. A gentle founding myth that pleased my romantic side.

  10. The Geological Story Briefly Told (public library) by James Dwight Dana (1875)
  11. Humphry Davy: Science and Power (public library) by David Knight (1998)
  12. Ulysses (public library | free ebook) by James Joyce (1922)
  13. The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (public library) by A.R. Luria (1968)
  14. The greatest neurological treasure of our time, for both thought and case description, is the works of A.R. Luria.

  15. Man with a Shattered World (public library) by A.R. Luria (1972)
  16. The Working Brain (public library) by A.R. Luria (1973)
  17. Higher Cortical Functions in Man (public library) by A.R. Luria (1966)
  18. Restoration of Function After Brain Injury (public library) by A.R. Luria (1963)
  19. The Nature of Human Conflicts; or Emotion, Conflict and Will (public library) by A.R. Luria (1932)
  20. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
  21. On Certainty (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951)
  22. Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love (public library) by Deborah Wearing (2005)
  23. 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.

  24. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (public library) by Darold Treffert (1989)
  25. British Botanists (public library) by John Gilmour (1944)
  26. The Discovery of the Elements (public library) by Mary Elvira Weeks (1934)
  27. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (public library) by Wade Davis (1996)
  28. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (public library) by Wade Davis (2011)
  29. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden (1976)
  30. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799–1804 (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1852)
  31. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1849)
  32. Humboldt and the Cosmos (public library) by Douglas Botting (1973)
  33. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (public library) by Abraham Pais (1982)
  34. Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (public library) by Abraham Pais (1991)
  35. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (public library) by Abraham Pais (2006)
  36. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
  37. Einstein (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1973)
  38. Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1984)
  39. Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings in Science (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1993)
  40. Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2004)
  41. Chemical Recreations: A Popular Manual of Experimental Chemistry (public library) by J.J. Griffin (1860)
  42. Practical Chemistry (public library) by William George Valentin (1908)
  43. 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.

  44. The Chemistry of Common Life (public library) by J.F.W. Johnston (1855)
  45. 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 …”)

  46. The Chemical Pocket-Book or Memoranda Chemica (public library) by James Parkinson (1803)
  47. Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (public library) by Douglas McKie (1952)
  48. An Autobiographical Sketch (public library) by Justus von Liebig (1891)
  49. The Stars in Their Courses (public library) by James Jeans (1931)
  50. 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.

  51. The Interpretation of Radium (public library) by Frederick Soddy (1922)
  52. 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).

  53. Beyond Good and Evil (public library | free ebook) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)
  54. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  55. The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) by Israel Rosenfield (1992)
  56. A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (public library) by Esther Salaman (1970)
  57. Vision: A Computational Investigation of Visual Representation in Man (public library) by David Marr (1982)
  58. Art of Memory (public library) by Francis Yates (1966)
  59. The Great Mental Calculators (public library) by Steven Smith (1983)
  60. Human Personality (public library | free ebook) by F.W.H. Myers (1961)
  61. Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child (public library) by Lorna Selfe (1977)
  62. The Thread of Life (public library) by Richard Wollheim (1984)
  63. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (public library) by Steven Mithen (2006)
  64. Hereditary Genius (public library) by Francis Galton (1869)
  65. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (public library | free ebook) by Francis Galton (1883)
  66. Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (public library) by John Harrison (2001)
  67. Consciousness Lost and Found (public library) by Lawrence Weiskrantz (1997)
  68. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (public library) by Umberto Eco (2005)
  69. I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (public library) by Rodolfo Llinás (2001)
  70. Sound and Symbol (public library) by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956)
  71. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr (1992)
  72. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (public library) by Merlin Donald (1991)
  73. Time and the Nervous System (public library) by William Gooddy (1988)
  74. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz: From 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England (public library) by Hector Berlioz (1865)
  75. The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (public library) by Theodor Reik (1953)
  76. Room for Doubt (public library) by Wendy Lesser (2007)
  77. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (public library) by Steve Lopez (2008)
  78. The (Strangest) Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice (public library) by Teri Sforza (2006)
  79. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (public library) by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
  80. Elegy for Iris (public library) by John Bayley (1999)
  81. The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library) by Robert Burton (1621)
  82. The Descent of Man (public library | free ebook) by Charles Darwin (1871)
  83. The Dance of Life (public library | free ebook) by Havelock Ellis (1923)
  84. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (public library) by Howard Gardner (1983)
  85. Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return (public library) by Mary Ellen Geist ()
  86. Drumming at the Edge of Magic (public library) by Mickey Hart (1990)
  87. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (public library) by John Hull (1990)
  88. Why Birds Sing (public library) by David Rothenberg (2005)
  89. The World as Will and Representation (public library) by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
  90. Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (public library) by Igor Stravinsky (1970)
  91. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (public library) by William Styron (1990)
  92. The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
  93. Master and Man, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1895)
  94. The Fountain Overflows (public library) by Rebecca West (1956)
  95. Essays in Biography (public library) by Maynard Keynes (1951)
  96. The Garden of Cyrus (public library) by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  97. The Perception of the Visual World (public library) by James Gibson (1950)
  98. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (public library) by Nora Ellen Groce (1985)
  99. The Complete Short Stories (public library) by H.G. Wells (1966)
  100. Suburban Shaman (public library) by Cecil Helman (2006)
  101. Life Itself (public library) by Francis Crick (1981)
  102. Of Molecules and Men (public library) by Francis Crick (1966)
  103. Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (public library) by Francis Crick (1994)
  104. An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (public library | free ebook) by James Parkinson (1817)
  105. The Lost World (public library | free ebook) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
  106. Earth Abides (public library) by George Stewart (1976)
  107. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (public library) by Erving Goffman (1961)
  108. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (public library) by C.M. Parkes (1972)
  109. The Basal Ganglia and Posture (public library) by James Purdon Martin (1967)
  110. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (public library) by Ilya Prigogine (1980)
  111. The Fractal Geometry of Nature (public library) by Benoit Mandelbrot (1982)
  112. 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.

  113. The Body in Question (public library) by Jonathan Miller (1978)
  114. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  115. Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (public library) by Michel Foucault (1965)
  116. The Principles of Psychology (public library) by William James (1890)
  117. The Varieties of Religious Experience (public library) by William James (1902)
  118. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (public library) by Robert E L Masters and Jean Houston (1966)
  119. Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems (public library) by Virginia Hamilton Adair (1996)
  120. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (public library) by Molly Brinbaum (2011)
  121. Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing — and Discovering — the Primal Sense (public library) by Bonnie Blodgett (2010)
  122. The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance (public library) by Eva Brann (1991)
  123. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials (public library) by Laurie Winn Carlson (1999)
  124. Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) by René Descartes (1641)
  125. Great Expectations (public library | free ebook) by Charles Dickens (1861)
  126. The Idiot (public library | free ebook) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1869)
  127. Brave New World (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  128. The Devils of Loudon (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1952)
  129. The Doors of Perception (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1954)
  130. Moby-Dick (public library | free ebook) by Herman Melville (1851)
  131. The Oxford English Dictionary (public library)
  132. 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.

BP

The Lost Mariner: A Beautiful Animated Short Film About Memory, Inspired by Oliver Sacks

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives.”

The Lost Mariner: A Beautiful Animated Short Film About Memory, Inspired by Oliver Sacks

“My work, my life, is all with the sick — but the sick and their sickness drives me to thoughts which, perhaps, I might otherwise not have,” Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 10, 2015) wrote in his 1985 classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales (public library) — perhaps the most influential treatise on the perplexities of memory, which solidified Dr. Sacks as the Dante of medicine and the clinical case study as his high poetic form. “Constantly my patients drive me to question, and constantly my questions drive me to patients,” he wrote.

One of those patients was Jimmie G. — a “charming, intelligent, memoryless” man admitted into New York City’s Home for the Aged with only an unfeeling transfer note stating, “Helpless, demented, confused and disoriented.” Jimmie G. is the subject of the second chapter, titled “The Lost Mariner,” which Dr. Sacks opens with an epigraph from the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel:

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

In the beautiful short film The Lost Mariner, independent animator Tess Martin brings Jimmie G.’s rare memory condition to life using photograph cutouts and live action. The effect is a stunning visual analog to the disorienting see-saw of reality and unreality constantly rocking those bedeviled by memory impairments, exposing the discomfiting yet strangely assuring truth in Buñuel’s words.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat remains one of the most intellectually and emotionally invigorating books published in the twentieth century. Complement it with Dr. Sacks’s magnificent autobiography, one of the best books of 2015, and his unforgettable account of how he saved his own life through literature and song, then see artist Cecilia Ruiz’s illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections.

BP

Oliver Sacks on Gratitude, the Measure of Living, and the Dignity of Dying

“I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Oliver Sacks on Gratitude, the Measure of Living, and the Dignity of Dying

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” proclaimed a 1924 guide to the art of living. That one of the greatest scientists of our time should be one of our greatest teacher in that art is nothing short of a blessing for which we can only be grateful — and that’s precisely what Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form, became over the course of his long and fully lived life.

In his final months, Dr. Sacks reflected on his unusual existential adventure and his courageous dance with death in a series of lyrical New York Times essays, posthumously published in the slim yet enormously enchanting book Gratitude (public library), edited by his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar, and his partner, the writer and photographer Bill Hayes.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes
Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

In the first essay, titled “Mercury,” he follows in the footsteps of Henry Miller, who considered the measure of a life well lived upon turning eighty three decades earlier. Dr. Sacks writes:

Last night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.

Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.

[…]

Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.

Having almost died at forty-one while being chased by a white bull in a Norwegian fjord, Dr. Sacks considers the peculiar grace of having lived to old age:

At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect… I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes
Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

But pushing up from beneath the wistful self-awareness is Dr. Sacks’s fundamental buoyancy of spirit. Echoing George Eliot on the life-cycle of happiness and Thoreau on the greatest gift of growing older, he writes:

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes
Oliver Sacks by Bill Hayes

In another essay, titled “My Own Life” and penned shortly after learning of his terminal cancer diagnosis at the age of eighty-one, Dr. Sacks reckons with the potentiality of living that inhabits the space between him and his death:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

Gliding his mind’s eye over one of Hume’s most poignant lines — “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.” — Dr. Sacks considers the paradoxical way in which detachment becomes an instrument of presence:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Such intensity of aliveness, Dr. Sacks observes, requires a deliberate distancing from the existentially inessential things with which we fill our daily lives — petty arguments, politics, the news. With his characteristic mastery of nuance, he points to a crucial distinction:

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

Decades after his beloved aunt Lennie taught him about dying with dignity and courage, Dr. Sacks lets this lesson come abloom in his own life. True to the defining enchantment of his books, he turns his luminous prose inward, then outward, and in a passage that calls to mind William Faulkner’s sublime living obituary, he exits this world — the world of writing and the world of life, for the two were always one for Dr. Sacks — with a breathtaking epitaph for himself:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

oliversacks_gratitude1

Gratitude is a bittersweet and absolutely beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on the life-saving power of music, the strange psychology of writing, and his story of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived, then revisit my remembrance of Dr. Sacks’s singular spirit.

BP

The Gentle Giant: Oliver Sacks and the Art of Choosing Empathy Over Vengeance

An existential lesson gleaned from a brush with death and foolishness.

“Compassion,” Karen Armstrong wrote in her stirring meditation on the true meaning of the Golden Rule, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” But when our own hearts are gripped with the threat and terror of imminent pain, how can we step outside this fear-fraught circumstance and consider, with kindness and openhearted goodwill, the reality of another?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) captures in one of the many ennobling anecdotes in On the Move: A Life (public library) — his altogether magnificent memoir of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived.

He recounts an incident from the spring of 1963, in the heyday of motorcycling and weightlifting obsession, embedded in which is an allegory of the singular genius that would come to define his career and legacy — the delicate and demanding art of peering into another’s mind with empathetic curiosity and seeing the vulnerable humanity that animates it.

Dr. Sacks at Muscle Beach with his beloved BMW motorcycle, 1960s

Dr. Sacks writes:

I was riding along Sunset Boulevard at a leisurely pace, enjoying the weather — it was a perfect spring day — and minding my own business. Seeing a car behind me in my driving mirror, I motioned the driver to overtake me. He accelerated, but when he was parallel with me, he suddenly veered towards me, making me swerve to avoid a collision. It didn’t occur to me that this was deliberate; I thought the driver was probably drunk or incompetent. Having overtaken me, the car then slowed down. I slowed, too, until he motioned me to pass him. As I did so, he swung into the middle of the road, and I avoided being sideswiped by the narrowest margin. This time there was no mistaking his intent.

I have never started a fight. I have never attacked anyone unless I have been attacked first. But this second, potentially murderous attack enraged me, and I resolved to retaliate. I kept a hundred yards or more behind the car, just out of his line of sight, but prepared to leap forward if he was forced to stop at a traffic light. This happened when we got to Westwood Boulevard. Noiselessly — my bike was virtually silent — I stole up on the driver’s side, intending to break a window or score the paintwork on his car as I drew level with him. But the window was open on the driver’s side, and seeing this, I thrust my fist through the open window, grabbed his nose, and twisted it with all my might; he let out a yell, and his face was all bloody when I let go. He was too shocked to do anything, and I rode on, feeling I had done no more than his attempt on my life had warranted.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks / Kate Edgar for Brain Pickings)

Shortly after this heart-stopping encounter, Dr. Sacks found himself in a strikingly similar incident while driving to San Francisco on a desert road. An aggressive driver suddenly appeared onto the empty expanse and, moving at 90 mph, deliberately forced the motorcycle off the road. What happened next reveals Dr. Sacks as a sort of gentle giant, both deeply human in his capacity for fury and in possession of superhuman empathetic sensitivity:

By a sort of miracle, I managed to hold the bike upright, throwing up a huge cloud of dust, and regained the road. My attacker was now a couple of hundred yards ahead. Rage more than fear was my chief reaction, and I snatched a monopod from the luggage rack (I was very keen on landscape photography at the time and always traveled with camera, tripod, monopod, etc., lashed to the bike). I waved it round and round my head, like the mad colonel astride the bomb in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove. I must have looked crazy — and dangerous — for the car accelerated. I accelerated too, and pushing the engine as much as I could, I started to overtake it. The driver tried to throw me off by driving erratically, suddenly slowing, or switching from side to side of the empty road, and when that failed, he took a sudden side road in the small town of Coalinga — a mistake, because he got into a maze of smaller roads with me on his tail and finally got trapped in a cul-de-sac. I leapt off the bike (all 260 pounds of me) and rushed towards the trapped car, waving the monopod. Inside the car I saw two teenage couples, four terrified people, but when I saw their youth, their helplessness, their fear, my fist opened and the monopod fell out of my hand.

I shrugged my shoulders, picked up the monopod, walked back to the bike, and motioned them on. We had all, I think, had the fright of our lives, felt the nearness of death, in our foolish, potentially fatal duel.

On the Move, for reasons articulated here, remains one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Complement this particular passage with Jane Goodall on empathy and Brené Brown on the crucial difference between empathy and sympathy, then revisit Oliver Sacks on storytelling and the curious psychology of writing, the paradoxical power of music, and this final farewell to the beloved science-storyteller.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.