Books on the Brain: LJ Reviews Oliver Sacks

Doctor, scientist, and writer Oliver Sacks, who died on August 30, is perhaps best known for his early work The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He was a prolific author, though, over the years penning many explorations of neurological dysfunction and, sometimes, superfunction. Below are some reviews of his titles that have appeared in LJ.

On the move

Sacks, Oliver. On the Move: A Life. Knopf. 2015. 416p. index. ISBN 9780385352543. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385352550. AUTOBIOG
Recently, author (Awakenings; The Man Who Mistoook His Wife for a Hat) and neurologist Sacks (neurology, New York Univ.) published an essay in which he eloquently speaks of life, death, and his diagnosis of terminal cancer. He states that he has been lucky to live a long, colorful life and to have many accomplishments. This autobiography covers much of that same ground. Sacks, now 81, writes of early school memories, first loves, and his desire to travel. He even utilizes entries from a journal he kept while traveling coast to coast on a motorcycle in the United States. The latter half of the book focuses more on his medical and writing achievements, providing background to his previously published works. It’s clear how important his family is to him, and how they’ve played a role in his experiences. Frank and candid, Sacks sounds as though he’s talking to the reader from across the dinner table. His story is a reminder that we create our own journeys. VERDICT For fans of Sacks, those who enjoy biographies, and anyone with an interest in medical or neurological work.—Caitlin Kenney, Niagara Falls P.L., NY

Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. Knopf. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780307957245. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307957252. sci
Physician and prolific author Sacks (The Mind’s Eye) gives readers another gem of a book, this time about hallucinations. He discusses his own experiences stemming from migraines or drug use: “My first pot experience was marked by a mix of the neurological and the divine.” Hallucinations can involve any of the five senses or memory, or be caused by brain injury. They manifest as sleep paralysis and nightmares, ecstasy and panic, music, haunting images, revenants, and doubles. Sacks’s more famous subjects here include Joan of Arc, Dostoyevsky, Freud, and William James. His commentary ranges widely, from hypnosis to post-traumatic stress disorder, imaginary companions to out-of-body experience. VERDICT With a fine sense of narrative, Sacks deftly integrates literature, art, and medical history around his very human, often riveting case histories. This book is recommended for all readers, not just those with symptoms! This is a model of humane science made compellingly readable. [See Prepub Alert, 5/2/12.]—E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC

Sacks, Oliver. The Mind’s Eye. Knopf. 2010. 263p. ISBN 97803074730289. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780307594556. sci
Sacks (neurology & psychiatry, Columbia Univ. Medical Ctr.; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) continues his successful stream of books on the quirky aspects of psychiatry with this latest, which explores the fascinating stories of six people who have learned to navigate the world and communicate with others despite losing one of their key senses and abilities, e.g., the power of speech, the capacity to recognize faces, the sense of three-dimensional space, and the ability to read. Also revealed is the author’s own dramatic story of a tumor in one eye that left him unable to perceive depth. As in all of Sacks’s works, readers will learn about fundamental facets of the human experience while better understanding the unpredictable new ways the brain can find to perceive, which allows it to create complete images of the world. Sacks delivers a richly detailed examination of various paradoxical medical conditions while he wrestles with more fundamental clinical questions, such as how humans really see and think. VERDICT The author’s well-known style creatively balances complex medical discussion, which will appeal to professionals on the one hand, with solid, down-to-earth prose that will attract his legion of fans interested in the human condition on the other.—Dale Farris, Groves, TX

musicophiliaSacks, Oliver. Musicophilia. Vintage. 2008. 425p. ISBN 9781400033539. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307267917. sci
Neurologist Sacks plays piano—e.g., Chopin mazurkas—and has treated musicians with brain and peripheral nerve problems. As always, he writes impeccably here but takes on such unusual, highly technical problems of music and medicine—e.g., musical hallucinations, cochlear amusia, Tourette’s syndrome—that readers who don’t know a lobe from a sulcus will be challenged. Writing about himself, however, Sacks is wonderful, as in “Lamentations: Music and Depression,” wherein he talks about how music may lose its power to engage people who are suffering depression after loss; then, suddenly and unexpectedly, music makes contact, releases stifled grief, and restores enthusiasm for life. Better for a general audience are Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Anthony Storr’s Music and the Mind, both of which are highly regarded by Sacks. This book is best suited to large general collections and those focused on music and neuroscience. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/07.]—E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC

Sacks, Oliver. The Island of the Colorblind. Vintage. 1998. 336p. ISBN 9780375700736. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780345805898. sci
Fans of Sacks’s previous publications will be enchanted by the newest work of the famous neurologist. Written as a travelog/medical adventure, the book is actually an account of two separate observational journeys. The first, to an island in Micronesia called Pingelap, was to observe a community in which an extraordinarily large number of the population suffer from an inherited colorblindness. The author offers a vivid description of this handicap: extreme sensitivity to light, less than one tenth of normal vision, and a lack of fixation of the eyes resulting in repeated “nystagmic jerks.” The second voyage was to Guam to observe the sufferers of lytico-bodig. Victims can have progressive paralysis, Parkinson’s-like symptoms, or even dementia. The clear way in which the author portrays the human spirit coping with vast disabilities will appeal to YAs interested in medical and science oddities. From night fishing with achromotopes on Pingelap to playing catch with a “frozen” bodig sufferer on Guam, Sacks carries readers along on a wave of interest and opens a fascinating, little-known world. Students who are looking for science, medical, or travelog literature—or just attention-grabbing reading—will be swept away.—Carol DeAngelo, formerly with Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. Vintage. 1996. 327p. ISBN 9780679756972. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780345805881. sci
According to Sacks, developmental defects, diseases, and disorders play a paradoxical role in human lives. Ravenous and destructive on the one hand, they also bring about unexpected growth and evolution of the extremely adaptive nervous system as it is forced to develop new paths and new ways of doing things. Sacks offers seven portraits exemplifying the “creative” potential of disease, including an artist who loses all sense of color in a car accident but finds a new sensibility and creative power in black and white; a surgeon consumed by the compulsive tics of Tourette’s syndrome unless he is operating; and an autistic PhD who cannot interpret the simplest social exchange between humans but has built a career out of her intuitive understanding of animal behavior. Taking leave of his white coat and the hospital environment, Sacks explores his subjects closely. True to his past work, he offers compelling stories told with the cognizance of a clinician and the heart and compassion of a poet. He also includes a superbly annotated bibliography for further study. This insightful and inspirational collection is essential for all libraries. [BOMC selection.]—David R. Johnson, Arnold LeDoux Lib., Louisiana State Univ., Eunice

Man who mistookSacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Touchstone. 1998. 256p. ISBN 9780684853949. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781623730000. sci
Neurologist Sacks, author of Awakenings and A Leg To Stand On, presents a series of clinical tales drawn from fascinating and unusual cases encountered during his years of medical practice. Dividing his text into four parts—”losses” of neurological function; “excesses”; “transports” involving reminiscence, altered perception, and imagination; and “the simple,” or the world of the retarded—Sacks introduces the reader to real people who suffer from a variety of neurological syndromes that include symptoms such as amnesia, uncontrolled movements, and musical hallucinations. Sacks recounts their stories in a riveting, compassionate, and thoughtful manner. Written on a somewhat scholarly level, the book is highly recommended for larger collections.—Debra Berlanstein, Towson State Univ. Lib., Baltimore

Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices. Knopf. 1991. 240p. ebk. ISBN 9780307834119. sci
Sacks, a neurologist and author of the popular The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat developed a serious interest in sign language and deafness after reviewing Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears for the New York Review of Books. In this work, Sacks explores all facets of the deaf world—he meets with deaf people and their families and visits schools for the deaf, spending a good deal of time at Gallaudet University. As he writes, “I had now to see them in a new, ‘ethnic light,’ as people with a distinctive language, sensibility, and culture of their own.” The work is divided into three broad sections, throughout which there are numerous, somewhat distracting footnote “excursions.” Although there is a wealth of insight and information here, the book tends to drag for the average reader and may disappoint fans of Sacks’s previous best seller. Recommended for scholars and graduate collections.—Debra Berlanstein, Towson State Univ. Lib., Baltimore

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.