by Jennifer Bryce
From the time I read Awakenings – many years ago – I have been an admirer of Oliver Sacks. The two main qualities for me are his lucidity – his ability to express complex scientific ideas in an accessible way – a way that is a pleasure for a non-scientist to read. And the second quality is his vast interest and knowledge about all things; his breadth of knowledge of literature, his fascination with chemistry, botany, history of science and much more – he could even play the piano! And underpinning all of this, the boy who loved solitary work with his chemistry set, the meticulous collector of facts, turned out also to be fascinated in people: his formidable scientific knowledge and observation combines with an ability to enter into the skin of people as he writes case studies that come to life.
I haven’t read all of Sacks’s books, but I intend to read more. Around the same time as I read Awakenings, his account of the lives of people who suffered from encephalitis lethargica and his ‘awakening’ them with the drug L-DOPA, I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a particular case study of a man who suffered from visual agnosia. The story was later adapted to an opera – Sacks didn’t make fun of the condition, he laughed along with his patients, but not at them.
Recently I read The River of Consciousness, a book of essays that were dictated by Sacks only weeks before his death in 2015. The essays range from Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, to the Fallibility of Memory. I came away from reading this book with a different view of Freud – the young neuro-anatomist who studied fish. I gained a new awareness of the importance of looking back to scientific studies of a hundred or so years ago, where significant observations of phenomena such as continental drift and Tourette’s syndrome were made, and then almost forgotten. When there is a new scientific discovery we tend to eschew the ‘out-of-date’ thinking in that area, and in doing so we lose important clues and observations. The ‘river of consciousness’ examines how we think; our memories are formed by transforming and organising, which often includes misappropriation – Sacks describes instances where he did this, when he believed he had seen something, yet what he was remembering was his brother’s vivid description. Our remembering is essentially a creative process, and the ‘river of consciousness’ is not continuous, but a series of discrete experiences, more like shots in a film.
Having become thoroughly engrossed in The River of Consciousness, I was delighted to discover that Sacks’s autobiography was also published in 2015. The title, On the Move: a Life, refers to Sacks’s enjoyment of riding his motor bike – various bikes during his life – long distances. When he was living in Los Angeles he would sometimes ride 500 miles to the Grand Canyon and another 500 miles back in a weekend. From seeing the film of Awakenings, I had gained an impression that Sacks was a bit of a loner. I knew he was gay, and he would have grown up in London around the same time as Alan Turin, whose sexual orientation was so horrifically condemned in the 1950s, leading to his suicide. It was reassuring to read of Sacks’s youthful love of motorbikes and to know that he did have albeit infrequent liaisons in Amsterdam and later in the US. Ultimately, when he was in his seventies, he met his partner Billy. For most of his life he was a loner, but a loner with rewarding and absorbing friendships. There was also a loving closeness to his family of brothers and physician parents.
We learn about his inspirations, his disappointments, his achievements as he wrote his many books and scientific papers. The whole book is written in a chatty, easy-to-read style although it quite often tackles details of his extensive interests in neuro-psychology – visual perception, how we think, how we perceive ourselves.
As I read these books I wished that I could have met this renaissance man of the 21st Century. I marvelled at his legacy and thought, how sad it is that there will be no more from him.