This collection of essays from great science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, is a real treat for anyone who loved his previous works.
As with his other books, the essays are readable, beautifully written and engaging. Known for his books The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and Migraine among others, he also wrote about his own life. His insatiable curiosity shines through, and it’s clear that this carried on throughout his long and interesting life. He covers a wide range of topics, from the joy of swimming to his love of libraries, to a piece about ferns, and the life of Humphrey Davy.
He addresses the ethics of writing about people who are or have been unwell in a clear and helpful way. His book review of Michael Greenberg’s A Summer of Madness raises the question, as Greenberg is writing about his teenage daughter Sally’s first experience of mania. Writing the book “… was not a quick or easy decision for either Sally or her father. Greenberg did not grab a pen and start writing during his daughter’s psychosis in 1996 – he waited, he pondered, he let the experience sink deep into him. He had long, searching discussions with Sally, and only more than a decade later did he feel that he might have the balance, the perspective, the tone that Hurry Down Sunshine would need. Sally, too, had come to feel this, and urged him not only to write her story but to use her real name, without camouflage. It was a courageous decision, given the stigma and misunderstanding that still surround mental illness of any kind” (p. 182).
My favourite essay is Travels with Lowell, an account of a road trip he takes with photojournalist Lowell Handler to find out more about Tourette’s. In the course of the trip, they visit La Crete, a Canadian town where many of the population have Tourette’s and town life accommodates this. I loved his observation after visiting: “There is, among Orthodox Jews, a blessing to be said on witnessing the strange: one blesses God for the diversity of his creation, and one gives thanks for the wonder of the strange. This, it seemed to me, was the attitude of the people of La Crete to the Tourette’s in their midst. They accepted it not as something annoying or insignificant, to be reacted to or overlooked, but as a deep strangeness, a wonder, an example of the absolute mysteriousness of Providence” (p. 106).
This is a deeply humane and engrossing collection. Read this and then read Gratitude, a book for all time.