Oliver Sacks - Three wonderful books

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Oliver Sacks sadly passed away a few days ago. He was a fascinating, brilliant and warm man and he contributed immeasurably to both clinical neuropsychology and public knowledge and interest in that field. Here's three of his books that I can heartily recommend.

'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' is the book that began my love for Oliver Sacks' writing. In it, he describes several patients that he worked with that had suffered some form of injury to the right hemisphere of their brain. The fact that it was a right hemisphere injury was of critical importance. A left hemisphere injury can cause serious problems to a person's ability to operate in society, but they are of an understandable nature. When the right hemisphere is damaged, the effects are very strange indeed.

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The patient that became the title subject of the book was a professional musician who'd suffered a serious lesion to the right hemisphere of his brain. What was incredible was that he could still work as a music professor, but he only recognised things in the world by their movement, by how they changed. Music, being in continual flux, in fact, being only identifiable to the senses by its continual changing, was no problem. The problem came with everyday objects and people. He could recognise his wife if she danced around the room, but if she stood still, he couldn't recognise her at all. In one meeting with Sacks, the professor mistakes her for his hat, hence the title. 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' is an absolute must-read book for anyone interested in the mind, the brain and how we connect with the world.

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The second book in my list is a natural follow-on from 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat'. 'An Anthropologist on Mars' is another series of case studies of patients who have difficulty functioning in normal society, either because of illness or injury, or because of them simply being very different people to the normal crowd. The titular subject of this book, as far as I know, is Temple Grandin. She isn't mentioned by name in the book - Sacks always keeps his patient's names confidential - but her later success in the U.S. farming industry and her ground-breaking work to improve animals welfare in that country's huge beef industry means the connection became inevitable. Grandin is a fascinating person. She is functional autistic; in other words she's autistic and cannot grasp the instinctive and complex social rules that most of us take for granted. Fortunately, she is extremely intelligent and erudite and can describe her problems clearly and evocatively. Her lack of human social perception is in contrast to her exceptional understanding of pigs and cows. She also cares greatly about them and at least one of the scenes in her chapter were, to me, very emotional moments.

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The third book includes Sacks' reminiscences of his own upbringing in London but he makes a masterful job of combining those personal recollections with the development of chemistry. When he was young, Sacks' uncle made tungsten filament bulbs, hence the title 'Uncle Tungsten' and it was through him that Sacks began his love and fascination for chemistry. In the book, Sacks brings the history of chemistry alive with his descriptions and stories. He takes us from the period before chemistry was formalised, when ores and alloys had evocative, wizardly, alchemical names and leads us through the events and changes that turned a dark art into a rigorous and logical science. The book is an absolute page-turner and one of the best popular science books I have ever read.

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Recently, the excellent website Brainpickings ran an article on Oliver Sacks in which he described his calamitous encounter with a bull, the injuries he received and his subsequent recovery. This was the inspiration for his book 'A leg to stand on'. Even when Sacks was in a life-or-death situation with an enraged bull, he couldn't help but analyse his situation and wonder about its meaning, its nature and what it said about life and reality. I think the article, and Sacks' comments very much bring across his insatiable curiosity, thoughtfulness and vivid enjoyment of people and life. He will be very much missed.