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Happy birthday, Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

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Today, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks turns 76. His most recent book, 2007's "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" is, we wrote in our review, "not so much a greatest-hits collection as a purposeful set of remixes" of cases he'd written about before, shifting attention to the issues of music and the brain.

The stories Sacks tells are so fascinating that his storytelling is, perhaps, overlooked. Take the title of his 1985 book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" -- it's wonderful, isn't it? It could easily have been called Case Studies in Neuroscience, or Perceptual Aberrations Today. But chances are it wouldn't have become a bestseller.

In an interview with the National Review of Medicine last year, Sacks talked about taking time off after med school and traveling in Canada. 

I kept a journal, called Canada Pause, in 1960. Canada Pause because travelling in Canada, especially in the Rockies, was sort of an interim for me. I had left England but was not sure what to do, not sure I wanted to stay in medicine. I wanted to write, but I had no idea what about.

As he undertook his medical career, his writing developed in tandem. Tim McIntyre interviewed Sacks for the Whole Earth Review in 1985.

TM: Your passion for literature seems to come through with the numerous literary references that you make in your books.

OS: I don't think of them as "literary references." I don't feel like a very literary person, but they just seem to apply. I mean, when I was reading Donne's Devotions, which I quote a lot in "Awakenings," it just seemed so close: "Diseases hold consultations. They seem to multiply among themselves." This was not just poetry: it was actually what seemed to be happening in front of me, and it was like a sort of science.... I think that medicine, and case history in particular, allows us a blending of art and science. That's why I like it.

Sacks is devoted to classical music -- Bach over Beethoven, as he demonstrated when they filmed his brain as he listened to both for the recent Nova television show Musical Minds. Back in 1995, McIntyre asked him about the music, writing and reading.

TM: I think you can hear the music in a lot of the best writing. James Joyce, for instance. His sentences have a musical feel to them, and supposedly he had a beautiful tenor singing voice.

OS: And for that matter there's Saul Bellow, whose "Mr. Sammler's Planet" I'm now reading. Some of the paragraphs, you know they're obviously ... This is a voice: this is the voice of the writer. There's the wit and the observation of the writer and everything else, but there's also the sheer music of the prose. And I think if that music runs through you, you have to sing or write or talk.


Happy birthday to Dr. Sacks.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Oliver Sacks speaks in June at Columbia University in New York City. Credit:  Chris McGrath / Getty Images

 
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