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Great Writers on the Power of Music

Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (a remark often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul,” the wise and wonderful Morley observed. Psychologists have studied why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity and how listening to music enraptures the brain. But, more than that, music works over the human spirit and stands as a supreme manifestation of our very humanity — something Carl Sagan knew when he sent the Golden Record into the cosmos as a representation of the most universal truths of our civilization.

Gathered here are uncommonly beautiful reflections on the singular power of music by some of humanity’s greatest writers, collected over years of reading — please enjoy.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag spent the majority of her adult life reading between eight and ten hours a day, and never fewer than four. Her intense love of literature was paralleled by a commensurate love of music. In a diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the spectacular volume that gave us young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something — she writes at age 15:

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.

KURT VONNEGUT

In his final essay collection, A Man Without a Country (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the shapes of storiesKurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. He synthesized the sentiment in an extra-concentrated dose of his wry irreverence:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay makes a similar point via counterpoint. In a beautiful 1920 letter to a friend, found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us the beloved poet on what it really means to be an anarchist, her touching appreciation of her mother, and her exquisite love letters — 28-year-old Millay writes:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

No one has illustrated the vitalizing power of music with more marvelous morbidity than Friedrich Nietzsche. In an aphorism from his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (public library), he proclaims:

Without music life would be a mistake.

The point of this morbidity, of course, is to convey the infinitely enlivening power of music — something Nietzsche elaborated on in an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library):

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Arthur Schopenhauer was a major influence on his compatriot of Nietzsche. In his extensive inquiry into the power of music, found in the first volume of his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library), Schopenhauer writes:

Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself, that in it we certainly have to look for more than that exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [“an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”] which Leibniz took it to be… We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

More of Schopenhauer’s ideas about music can be found here.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf found a very different kind of exaltation in music. In a lengthy 1903 diary entry titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” from A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library), the 21-year-old writer recounts the particularly intoxicating effect of dance music (which, at the time, involved violins) during a wild night on the town:

That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music.

VICTOR HUGO

The great French Romantic poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo extolled music’s singular potency with sublime succinctness. In the preface to his 1864 study of those he considered to be “the greatest geniuses of all time,” somewhat deceptively titled William Shakespeare (public library), he writes:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley takes a complementary perspective in a beautiful essay titled The Rest Is Silence (on which Alex Ross’s excellent The Rest Is Noise is a play), found in the altogether terrific 1931 collection Music at Night and Other Essays (public library):

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

[…]

When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.

ANAÏS NIN

Perhaps the most dedicated and prolific diarist of all time, French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and continued until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse and timeless subjects as love, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In an entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (public library) — which also gave us Nin’s sublime meditation on embracing the unfamiliar — she writes:

Jazz is the music of the body. The breath comes through brass. It is the body’s breath, and the strings’ wails and moans are echoes of the body’s music. It is the body’s vibrations which ripple from the fingers. And the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life. We give to others only peripheral improvisations.

WALT WHITMAN

In his timeless and tremendously timely 1860s essay Democratic Vistas, found in the Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library), Walt Whitman writes:

Music, the combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human, advances, prevails, holds highest place; supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.

OLIVER SACKS

Nearly a century and a half later, Oliver Sacks captured this supreme spiritual sustenance of music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), which remains the most stimulating inquiry into the source of music’s power ever written. Reflecting on a particularly trying moment for the human spirit — the days following the September 11 attacks — Dr. Sacks writes:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement with Anthony Burgess’s account of the magical moment he fell in love with music as a little boy and this wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music, then revisit similar collections of great writers’ reflections on New York City, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the importance of boredom, and how creativity works.

BP

9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

From Ada Lovelace to dark matter, a kaleidoscopic lens on life’s most elusive dimension.

9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

“I don’t like time to flap round me,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary. And yet time is always and forever flapping round us, impervious to our protestations. We might as well befriend it, then.

For this year’s installment of my annual collaboration with the TED Bookstore, I selected nine books that explore the many dimensions of time — the flow of a single life, punctuated by the triumphs and tragedies that compose the universal human experience; the contrasting time-scales of the universe, in which billions of years conspire in the slow evolution of life and cataclysmic events can alter its course in an instant; the unending dialogue between the past and the present, reminding us that nothing we experience as new is truly new; the diurnal record of seemingly mundane moments out of which the meaning of life arises.

tedbookstore2016

Here are the selections, along with the short descriptions I wrote, as they appear in the bookstore.

ON THE MOVE

On the Move: A Life (public library) by Oliver Sacks:

Oliver Sacks is a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form. His autobiography, in addition to offering a revelatory lens on his singular spirit, is a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (we see him go from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (there he is, a young gay man looking for true love in the 1960s, which was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (on the beaches of City Island, he watches horseshoe crabs mate exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primeval seas). On every page, this supreme poet of science reminds us what it means to live a full, purposeful life.

Read more here.

ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) by poet Matthew Burgess and artist Kris Di Giacomo:

Beloved poet E.E. Cummings remains one of the most innovative creative voices of the twentieth century. This lyrical illustrated biography chronicles his life and creative bravery with uncommon tenderness, befitting Cummings’s onetime proclamation that he is “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

Read more here.

M TRAIN

M Train (public library) by Patti Smith:

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” writes Patti Smith in this most unusual and breathtaking book — part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself, in which she looks back on a lifetime of loves and losses through the lens of the beloved literature that shaped her mind and music: from William Blake to Sylvia Plath to Haruki Murakami. What emerges is an uncommonly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss.

Read more here.

THE LIFE OF THE MIND

The Life of the Mind (public library) by Hannah Arendt:

In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality. Other speakers have included such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan. A significant portion of this altogether mind-expanding book adaptation of her lecture explores the perplexity of memory and how our thinking ego shapes our experience of the elasticity of time.

Read more here.

DAYBOOK

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) by Anne Truitt:

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the discomfort of being forced into a finite and therefore limiting definition of what one is and what one’s art stands for. To untangle her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. Formally trained as a psychologist, she possessed exceptional powers of introspection and self-awareness which, coupled with her artist’s penchant for patient observation, which made her journal a true masterwork of psychological insight into the creative process and the life of the spirit.

Read more here.

THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library) by Sydney Padua:

Graphic artist and animator Sydney Padua tells the story of how two eccentric Victorian geniuses — Ada Lovelace, widely considered the world’s first computer programmer, and Charles Babbage — invented the first computer, the Analytical Engine. Although it has the visual sensibility of a comic book, this is actually a masterwork of scholarship and an incredibly thoughtful poetic analog to the subject matter: The story of Analytical Engine began when Ada Lovelace translated a paper by an Italian military engineer and added 7 footnotes to it, which together measured 65 pages — two and a half times the length of the original paper; in them, she penned the first computer program. Padua’s book has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio. In the footnotes — which, of course, are the original analog hyperlinks — she draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials: Lovelace and Babbage’s letters, autobiographies, unpublished paper and lectures, and various encounters with their famous contemporaries, from Charles Dickens to Mary Somerville.

Read more here.

THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) by Jimena Canales:

On April 6, 1922, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson sat down for a public debate. Although the event was intended to be a polite academic conversation, the two intellectual titans clashed completely and vehemently on just about every count related to the subject of the debate, which was the nature of time. The repercussions of that disagreement were enormous and profound, laying the foundation of how we currently understand, study, and experience time.

Read more here.

DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) by Lisa Randall:

Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall presents a fascinating speculative theory linking the extinction of the dinosaurs to dark matter. Undergirding the theory is a stimulating exploration of the evolution of the universe, the lineage of scientific breakthroughs that led to our present understanding of space, time, and matter, and the sobering reality of life as both a function both of cosmic work billions of years in the making and of dramatic accidents that alter everything in an instant.

Read more here.

ONGOINGNESS

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) by Sarah Manguso:

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” writes Sarah Manguso in her magnificent exploration of time, memory, beginnings and endings, and how we measure the rhythm of our aliveness. Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection on time exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.”

Read more here.

BP

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

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

How a simple compass oriented one of humanity’s greatest minds toward the truth of things.

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her breathtaking recollection of the insight that made her an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In 1946, five years after Woolf’s death, another one of humanity’s most luminous and expansive minds recounted arriving at a strikingly similar notion via a strikingly similar formative experience.

einstein1

In a passage from his Autobiographical Notes (public library), sixty-seven-year-old Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) considers the nature of wonderment:

I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that we sometimes “wonder” quite spontaneously about some experience? This “wondering” appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensely it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from “wonder.”

A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit in the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct “touch”). I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.

Complement Autobiographical Notes, a revelatory read in its slim but potent entirety, with Einstein on kindness, the secret to learning anything, the common language of science, his exquisite love letters, and this lovely picture-book biography of the great scientist.

BP

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