A wonderful post from the amazing Brain Pickings website on Oliver Sachs reading list
The Life of the Mind: Oliver Sacks’s 121 Formative and Favorite Books from a Lifetime of Reading
From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.
BY MARIA POPOVA
A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.
Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s ownpoignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.
In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:
Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.
In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:
My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.
Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:
The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…
In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.
Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.
Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.
Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.
Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.
I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:
“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”
In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.
When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.
“You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.
Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
[It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.
A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.
Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)
Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.
Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.
But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).
When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.
This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.
There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.
Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.
Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.