The world is filled with fascinating things.
But since most of us are busy shuffling a rut from home to office and back, filling our hours with the quotidian crap we must endure to pay our bills and keep our children from becoming methamphetamine addicts, we usually don’t have the time or energy to sniff out fascination for ourselves.
Thus it helps—a lot— to have a guide, someone whose job it is to find marvels and tell us about them.
For the past 40 years, amazement-hungry readers have had no better friend than Oliver Sacks, the British-born neuroscientist who has turned his tireless curiosity with everything from the mind to music to metal to ferns into a dozen books that challenge, frighten, entertain and enlighten.
Sacks, whose 80th birthday is today, provided you are reading this on Tuesday, July 9, was well into his career as a doctor when he realized—during an amphetamine binge, he recently admitted—that he could carry on the tradition of the erudite Victorian medical writers he so admired, presenting his case studies, not to a narrow audience of fellow physicians, but to the general public.
And so he did, starting with his first book, Migraine, published in 1970, which set a pattern for combining the personal (Sacks suffers from intense migraine headaches) with the scientific.
It was his second book, Awakenings, that brought him wider public notice in 1973. Awakenings is about a group of patients Sacks treated at the Bronx's Beth Abraham Hospital in the late 1960s who had been stricken during an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica— sleeping sickness—in the 1920s and remained in near-comas for almost half a century. They were brought back to consciousness, awakened as it were, by doses of L-DOPA, a chemical normally produced in the brain which had just become available artificially. It return them to awareness for increasingly shorter windows of lucidity, and made for a deeply weird and scary book, the frozen post-encephalitics, their heads tilted back in mute screams, as unsettling an image as anything found in Stephen King. Only they were real.
If you are looking for a place in Sacks’ canon to start, I’d say begin with his fourth book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a catalogue of bizarre and, to most readers, heretofore unimagined neurological woes—strange voids and ticks, people who lose the sense of their own bodies and are, for instance, unable to recognize their own legs, and so keep trying to push them out of bed, believing someone has tucked a corpse limb under the covers. A patient who lost his sense of leftness, and could only clean the right side of the plate. The man who saw his wife and thought “a hat,” then tried to snatch her up and put her on this head.
These case histories cut to the cold reality of the biological nature of our minds, and had Sacks done nothing else, he would have added greatly to the public understanding of the weird electro-chemical glop brewing between our ears. But Sacks then wandered the world, like the explorer/scientists of old he so admired, to places like the atoll of Pingelap, a speck in the Pacific, to study a population where one in three people have the colorblindness gene, an adventure documented in his book, The Island of the Colorblind.
While science is his goal, there is always a humanity, a sweetness to Sacks—he notes being met at Pingelap by children waving banana leaves. In addition to all the fantastic facts he marshals, he proves the most delightful companion and guide, the caring, competent, deeply knowledgeable doctor we yearn for all our lives and seldom find. His only pure memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood presents that rarest of literary accomplishments—an interesting story of a happy childhood (mostly, except when he is sent to a Dickensian boarding school during the Blitz) in his case spent among eccentric scientific relatives in London and parents who were both doctors happy to call the boy in to help with an operation. Here is a lad who, turning 11, tells people he is now sodium—the atomic number of sodium being 11.
Sacks grew into a strange guy—painfully shy and solitary, celibate for decades, living alone on City Island, a dot in Long Island Sound. His writing is not perfect–he sometimes forgets that his readers do not share his deep range of medical knowledge, and can toss off a sentence like this one, in Musicophilia: "The tumor, her doctors felt, was malignant (though it was probably an oligodendroglioma, of relatively low malignancy) and needed to be removed.” That sends the diligent reader scrambling to the dictionary to piece together whatever "an oligodendroglioma" might be (a tumor in certain cells of the nervous system, as best I can figure out).
Most authors start to coast as they age, taking refuge in the safe and the familiar, becoming parodies of themselves. But as Sacks has gotten older, he has gotten better, more personal, more candid. Fearless even, writing about his own oddities, his own neurological conditions, why he has great difficulty recognizing faces and navigating his own neighborhood. He also details his own youthful experiments with drugs, going back to 1953 when he and a fellow Oxford biology student wrote to Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland and ordered 50 micrograms of then perfectly legal LSD, which the company dutifully mailed to the students. This dabbling grew into heavy drug use, which he describes in his most recent book, Hallucinations, writing in frightening detail about both the downside, but also the value of his experiences, a balance refreshing in our straight-laced, Just-Say-No era.
This isn’t the venue to give Sacks full justice—he is a man of many parts. But it’s a beginning, and given that I constantly encounter— to my amazement—people who have never heard of Sacks, never mind read him, I thought that his 80th birthday is an appropriate moment to wish him well and, more importantly, to tip readers off to the treat awaiting them. Start with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—trust me, you won't regret it.
Human brains stored at the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, 1540 S. Ashland Ave.