The Short Version: Oliver Sacks digs into some of his most interesting cases – those that show minds operating outside the normal spectrum, interpreting the world in ways the rest of us could only imagine.
The Review: I came to Oliver Sacks only after his passing. I’d read a few excerpts here and there, mostly pieces that popped up in The New Yorker, but I’d never made the concerted effort to read his work. The closest I ever came was probably seeing a production of Harold Pinter’s “A Kind of Alaska”, which was inspired by reading Awakenings. But he’d been recommended to me time and again and when BookClub decided to take a run at him, I was excited.
But, honestly, I was left… not cold, necessarily, but a little nonplussed, perhaps. Surprised might also be an appropriate term, for Sacks’ work is largely that of… well, a doctor. So many of the pieces in this collection read like a case study that would be shared with others in the field as opposed to something that the general populace would normally read. This is not a bad thing, just… not what I was expecting.
So what, then, did I expect? I think I expected something pitched more towards the ordinary (or, if not “ordinary”, the New Yorker-reading intelligentsia equivalent) reader, something a little more colloquial. Sacks has zero problem name-dropping everyone from philosophers to other medical professionals to cultural icons without explanation – and while I got most of his references, there were plenty that I didn’t. His efficient tone also kept me at arm’s length quite often, as he breezed through this or that (admittedly very interesting) case without really delving into it.
Some of the cases presented here, of course, do receive greater depth and examination. “The President’s Speech”, for example, shows some of the sharper observational stuff I’d hoped for – not science, but life. I wish he’d given me more of this, this sense of the world at large as well as the individual cases and their stories. How do these idiosyncratic people fit into the world, both their world and the world-at-large? I guess the thing is that there’s an odd sense of voyeurism with many of these cases, a sense of intruding onto someone’s private life. It’s doctors making rounds, something that it feels like people aren’t supposed to be privy to, you know?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I can’t deny that Sacks’ work is far more approachable than perhaps any other science writer and that his curiosity about / examination of the stranger aspects of the brain is tremendously compelling. His relentless interest in what makes us go and how what we consider “normal” can be upended without an understanding of why… that’s the sort of mind that we, as humanity, are lucky to’ve had. It’s a shame that there aren’t more solutions presented here, but the fact that Sacks was thinking about these things and helping others consider them is important. We may never fully understand the brain but, thanks to Dr. Sacks, we might have a little bit more knowledge than we would’ve otherwise.