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Assembling My Atheneum: Oliver Sacks

January 12, 2011

If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. So far, I’ve featured A.S. Byatt, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and Larissa Volokhonsky & Richard Pevear.

It’s been ages since I’ve done one of these! When I conducted my poll to help figure out a blogging schedule, this was the only feature that received a significant amount of votes for the ‘once a month’ option at 38% (once a fortnight came next with 32% and once a week received 28%). I took this into account when planning things, and my unexpected blogging break encompassed when I’d thought to do my December AMA. So I’ll probably do two this month catch up. ;)

Anyway, this time I feel like gushing about Oliver Sacks (particularly since I just learned that The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was on the NYT bestseller list the week I was born), a British-born, American-based neurologist. My first exposure to him was in an introduction to psychology class I took in the winter of my freshman year of college, when I was seventeen. While the class as a whole was incredibly unfortunate, I remember loving the essay our professor had us read. I think at the time I vaguely noticed that it was an excerpt from a book, but I didn’t bother investigating further (as I recall, most of my free time that term was consumed in boy drama). Flash forward to 2007, when I discovered Book Mooch thanks to other bloggers; one of the first titles I requested was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In November of that year I got around to reading it and loved it. I decided I’d have to track down more of Sacks writing.

The following year I read Musicophilia, which cemented his place as one of my favourite nonfiction writers. And then in 2009, I read both his travelogue Oaxaca and his memoir Uncle Tungsten. Along the way, I ended up a starry-eyed convert and upon discovering that Sacks isn’t married, began referring to him as my future husband (that brain! that voice! that beard! who cares that there’s a fifty-three year age gap?). Last year, I returned to his neurological-focused writing with An Anthropologist on Mars and adored it (the only reason it wasn’t on my best-of list is that I knew I’d be posting this a couple of days later), although apparently I didn’t write about it. At this point, I’ve read about half of his backlist and am drawing out the rest so that I don’t run out too soon. The ones I have yet to get to, in published order beginning with the earliest: Migraine, Awakenings, Leg to Stand On, Seeing Voices, Island of the Colorblind, and The Mind’s Eye (published just a couple of months ago!). I only have my own copies of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars (yet another example of my bookshelves not necessarily reflecting my reader-self!).
If you’d like to know more about Sacks (or attempt to understand my crush on him) , you can watch a TED talk he delivered last year, as well as explore his nicely laid out website. If I’ve already convinced you to read him, allow me to help you decide where to start. If you’re most intrigued by his neurological case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is the classic place to begin (although, if your life is touched by autism, the title essay of An Anthropologist on Mars is an incredible piece on that). But if you’re most interested in getting a taste of his marvelous writing, which combines the personal and the scientific so well, Uncle Tungsten is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Seriously. And for those of you who love travelogues but aren’t sure about popular science, Oaxaca Journal is a slim little volume detailing Sacks’ trip there with a group for the purposes of fern collecting. Trust me: it’s more interesting than you might expect. ;)

Do you have a favourite popular science author? And who’s your strangest author crush?

58 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2011 5:38 am

    This is the first time I’ve come across this feature and I think it’s a wonderful idea. I’ve read nothing by Sacks, although I know of his work through other media both the film ‘Awakenings’ and the Harold Pinter play, ‘A Kind of Alaska’, which I produced some years ago. My own favourites would include Simon Singh and Brian Cox. As for writers I would want to include in a complete works collection, wow! I need to go away and think about that.

    • January 16, 2011 11:22 am

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the feature Annie! :) I haven’t read Singh yet; I had his book on codes out last year but didn’t quite get to it. And I’ve never heard of Cox! Any suggestions on best first titles for them?

  2. January 12, 2011 6:12 am

    Thanks Eva! This is an author I want to read, but haven’t yet. The video you shared was very interesting, he’s a really good speaker to be able to engage an audience on a more ‘complex’ topic!

  3. January 12, 2011 6:14 am

    I read Sacks years ago and for some reason never kept up him. Now you are making me want to revisit him. My mind is a blank for other authors at the moment, and John McPhee is the only author I can think of. I had a plan (before blogging) to revisit his Annals the Former World on audio. I know that somewhere I said I was done with rereading very long works … but now I find I may cave. Hummmm.

    • January 16, 2011 11:23 am

      Oh man, I had the roughest time with Annals of the Former World. I ended up wimping out and calling it a day after I finished the first of the originally published books. On the other hand, when I drove cross country on the I-80 later that year, I was glad I had read it!

  4. January 12, 2011 8:17 am

    I really love this feature! Musicophilia was one of the very first books I read for the blog and I absolutely loved it. It was also one of the first truly non-fiction books I had read for myself, not related to school. It opened up a whole new world of popular science, just plain science and all sorts of non-fiction books that I hadn’t been reading before. I really want to read Uncle Tungsten now!

    • January 16, 2011 11:23 am

      That’s awesome Lu! I think you’d definitely love Uncle Tungsten then.

  5. January 12, 2011 9:11 am

    Sacks is definitely one of those authors who was completely off my radar so thanks for the introduction! I don’t read a lot of (any?) popular science but it is one of those areas where I’ve been hoping to expand my knowledge. Now I just need to figure out where to start; Musicophilia sounds interesting as does Oaxaca Journal. Already looking forward to your next AMA post!

    • January 16, 2011 11:24 am

      Thanks Claire! I think any of his would be a good place to start, so just go with whatever you’re in the mood for. ;)

  6. January 12, 2011 9:23 am

    Thanks for telling me about Sacks; I’m interested, after your glowing endorsement! I don’t have a favorite popular science author per se, but I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Don’t have an author crush either (unless it’s Sam Calagione, but my crush goes far beyond his books!). But I DO have authors I’d like to own all of: first and foremost, Hemingway. I’m close, but don’t have it all.

    • January 16, 2011 11:25 am

      Thanks for the title suggestions! I actually have the audio of Henrietta Lacks out from the library right now. :)

      I haven’t read any Hemingway since I was in high school; I think I’ll be giving Moveable Feast a go this year.

  7. January 12, 2011 9:26 am

    Thanks for telling me about Sacks; I’m interested, after your glowing endorsement! I don’t have a favorite popular science author per se, but I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Don’t have an author crush either (unless it’s Sam Calagione, but my crush goes far beyond his books!). But I DO have authors I’d like to own all of: first and foremost, Hemingway. I’m close, but don’t have it all.

  8. January 12, 2011 9:31 am

    You’ve done it again, Eva! Thanks for this wonderful post. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorites and is a frequent visitor on Radiolab. If you don’t know about these wonderful podcasts, check them out!

    • January 16, 2011 11:25 am

      Thanks for the link and compliment Gavin! :D

  9. January 12, 2011 10:06 am

    I’ve only read a handful of Oliver Sacks’ books, but found them all fascinating. You’ve mentioned a few I didn’t even know about, that are definitely getting added to my list now!

    • January 16, 2011 11:27 am

      Fascinating is a great way to describe his work!

  10. January 12, 2011 11:23 am

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is so fascinating, I find myself sharing anecdotes from the book with people all the time!

    • January 16, 2011 11:27 am

      I do that with nonfiction all the time! lol It just confirms my nerdiness. ;)

  11. January 12, 2011 12:46 pm

    I adore Sacks, it’s so funny you refer to him as your future husband! His Oaxaca Journal is one of my favorite book, drawings of ferns, I love it. I think the one I haven’t read that I’m most eager to read is The Island of the Colorblind. Thanks for reminding me, this is a great feature!

    • January 16, 2011 11:28 am

      I’m eyeing Island of the Colorblind for my next Sacks too! Fun coincidence. :) And the fern line drawings are so lovely, aren’t they?!

  12. January 12, 2011 1:50 pm

    Sacks is wonderful. I read _Man who Mistook His Wife_ in college in a literary non-fiction writing class. Changed my life and made me decide to be a writer. Even more life-changing, though, was his book _Seeing Voices_, which I read in the slow recovery weeks following brain surgery that left me deaf in one ear. The insight I got from his book (and a few others) led me to a teaching post at Gallaudet and to writing to books about the history of Deaf people in the US. Although its transformative power in my case had more to do with timing, it is an extra0rdinary bo0k and I recommend it highly.

    • January 16, 2011 11:29 am

      That is so interesting! I’m glad to hear I have it to look forward to, and what a lovely way it affected your life at just the right time. I recently watched a documentary about deaf people in the US: Through Deaf Eyes.

  13. January 12, 2011 1:58 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a science book, but I have Oliver Sacks on my amazon wishlist from when you have mentioned him before.
    My only author crush is Neil Gaiman – the black dishevelled hair, family man and oh that voice! :D

    • January 16, 2011 11:29 am

      Lol: I can completely understand your crush on Gaiman! :)

  14. January 12, 2011 2:47 pm

    My husband really likes Sacks and, in fact, just read The Mind’s Eye (it’s in my stack of books to return to the library as we speak!). I’ve never read anything by Sacks, but I’ve heard he is wonderful. As my husband was reading Sacks’s latest, I got to hear interesting tidbits from the book over breakfast. I need to make more room in my reading for nonfiction, and I’d definitely like part of that space to go to Sacks!

    • January 16, 2011 11:29 am

      Your husband has marvelous taste! ;)

  15. January 12, 2011 4:53 pm

    Thanks for this round up eva ,I like a couple of others Haven’t read sacks I did watch awakenings once may try it again ,all the best stu

    • January 16, 2011 11:30 am

      I hope you give him a go some day Stu. :)

  16. January 12, 2011 6:10 pm

    Interesting! I’ve never read anything by this author but OBVIOUSLY need to!!

  17. January 12, 2011 6:18 pm

    What a great post! I don’t think I would have ever put Oliver Sacks on my radar but now thanks to you I want to read his travelogue or something else by him.

    • January 16, 2011 11:31 am

      Yay! I’m glad I could inspire you. :)

  18. January 12, 2011 7:31 pm

    I haven’t read this author yet, having just discovered him recently. But I have one of his books on hold at the library and am eagerly waiting for it. Great post!

  19. January 13, 2011 7:29 am

    I still have only read one — and that was an audiobook. But I was fascinated by Musicophilia. Must read more!

    • January 16, 2011 11:32 am

      I’m not very good at nonfiction audiobooks! But I imagine Musicophilia would be a really neat one to listen to.

  20. January 13, 2011 9:30 am

    I have Musicophilia on my list. Strangest author crush is a very good question; I had to read through the comments to see what everyone said. I think my strangest one must be Jasper Fforde. I’d love to meet him; he seems to share all my interests, and they’re a strange and eclectic collection!

    • January 16, 2011 11:32 am

      Most of the commenters apparently don’t have author crushes! ;) Fforde definitely seems a bit odd, lol.

  21. January 13, 2011 10:01 am

    I’ll be adding Oliver Sacks to my must read author list (I LOVE science … studied it in college … worked in research for a few years).

    Stephen Jay Gould is my all time favorite popular science writer, mainly because he feeds my obsession for evolutionary biology writings and he uses a good blend of humor with much of what he writes.

    • January 16, 2011 11:33 am

      What a coincidence: I just put in a hold request for my first Gould! :D

      • January 17, 2011 7:57 am

        Oh boy … I really hope you enjoy him as much as I do! I can’t wait to see what you think :)

  22. January 13, 2011 10:01 am

    I’ll be adding Oliver Sacks to my must read author list (I LOVE science … studied it in college … worked in research for a few years).

    Stephen Jay Gould is my all time favorite popular science writer, mainly because he feeds my obsession for evolutionary biology writings and he uses a good blend of humor with much of what he wrote.

  23. January 13, 2011 11:07 am

    This post is coming at a perfect time for me! I just put Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye on hold at the library yesterday. One of my author’s crush: Mary Roach.

    • January 16, 2011 11:34 am

      Oh yay! I’ve had mixed luck with Roach: I enjoyed Stiff a lot but I couldn’t stand Spook. lol One of these days I’ll try Boink.

  24. January 13, 2011 6:49 pm

    I don’t have a favorite science author, but I want for my favorite science author to become Oliver Sacks. I just haven’t had read his books yet in order to love him appropriately. But I will though, I’m sure! I love weird neuroscience stuff.

    • January 16, 2011 11:34 am

      I’m sure you’ll get there one day! :D

  25. January 13, 2011 9:46 pm

    He’s on TED? I’m gonna have to check that out.

    My book group read The Mind’s Eye for this month’s meeting. I thought the essay on stereo vision was particularly interesting. He tells of a woman who goes through most of her life without depth perception, only to develop it later in life. I spent hours staring at stuff wondering how good/bad my depth perception was.

    I think readers will appreciate the book, since I have a sneaking suspicion many of us worry about vision problems.

    • January 16, 2011 11:35 am

      Isn’t TED fun?! And lol @ you trying to figure out your depth perception. Every time I read a pop neuroscience book, I end up doing the strangest things.

  26. January 15, 2011 11:33 am

    I haven’t read a lot by Sacks yet, but what I read I loved! :D I really want to read Migraine since I suffer from those (though I suspect his cases were all super interesting and dramatic).

    And it’s so hard to draw out reading the rest of a favorite author’s backlist!

    • January 16, 2011 11:36 am

      I had horrible migraines in high school (they were my trigger for fibro, actually), so I avoided that one for awhile. But now that I haven’t had a migraine in ages (as long as I avoid coffee), I’m curious to read it! It is hard drawing out a backlist, lol.

  27. January 15, 2011 12:59 pm

    I remember you gushing about Oliver Sacks before — so I may have mentioned then “Seeing Voices” about Deaf culture. The first one of his books I read. I also own “an Anthropologist on Mars” which prompted me to read Temple Grandin’s books — you may like her books if you haven’t read her yet. I know I’ve read a couple others by Oliver from the library but can’t remember them off the top of my head right now!

    I also second those who have mentioned the Henrietta Lacks book by Skloot — that was much better than I expected (it has been hyped for good reason).

    • January 16, 2011 11:37 am

      I’m glad you approve of Seeing Voices! :) And I’ve been wanting to read Grandin’s books since I realised they existed a couple of months ago, lol.

      I have the audio for Henrietta Lacks out….I’ve listened to the first half hour, maybe, and I’m still a bit hesitant. But maybe it’ll win me over by the end.

  28. January 17, 2011 11:58 am

    No, I don’ t have any author crushes. I do enjoy books by this author, though. And really want to read a Mary Roach book and the gender one by Cordelia Fine. And am looking forward to more Natalie Angier and … I’m sure there are many science books I would love!

  29. January 17, 2011 6:59 pm

    I’ve never read any of Sacks’ work, although I heard an interview with him on NPR and thought it sounded quite interesting. I’d like to branch out to more non-fiction–sounds like this might be an author to try.

  30. January 19, 2011 10:49 pm

    A bit late of reading and commenting (I read blog posts in haphazard order, even for one blog), but in any way I’m happy to read this one. I’m in non-fiction binge lately (feel like my life is a bit too taxing to be too absorbed in fiction lately) so the timing couldn’t be more perfect yay. I did a quick search for The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat in my library catalogue but they don’t stock any *sad face*. Oh well I’ll get the book somehow!

    ps: I heard of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat before but it never registered in my head that it’s non fiction about neuroscience. For some reason I thought it’s a recently published fiction! Err…


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