‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:


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 favourite 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 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 I wrote non-stop for two hours on the subject. 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’d come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize? Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize. Fifty pounds! I’d 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 pounds, the 12 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.

If you’re impressed (or appalled) by the idea of someone reading the entire OED, well, there’s another book all about that; I’ll have more in a separate post soon.* In the meantime, you’ll find more Oliver Sacks in the Sentence first archives.

* Update: See my post ‘50 lost words from the OED‘, prompted by Ammon Shea’s book Reading the OED.


6 Responses to ‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

  1. astraya says:

    I could have done a lot better at university if I’d known that!

  2. This is a segue, but “I dreaded my mother’s reaction” reminds me of something I have Views about.

    When I was in primary school, end-of-semester report cards were given to us in an envelope addressed to our parents, which in theory we were supposed to hand to our parents and not open ourselves. Of course, we all opened the envelopes ourselves.

    And quite right too. It was utterly immoral of the school to have a policy (albeit uninforced) that parents should see the results before the students do.

    Parents have an enormous amount of power over their children, and to magnify that power differential unnecessarily is wrong. Granting a parent access to a student’s school results before you grant it to the student constitutes a scary amount of additional power, and in all but the most storybook of families is abuse waiting to happen. It gives the student something to be afraid of.

    Whereas the student reading their report card on the school bus will typically think, “this is not as bad as I feared”, and will then be able pass it on to the parent without anxiety. This is far better and more harmonious for all concerned.

    • Stan Carey says:

      This isn’t something I’ve thought about before, which in itself indicates its relative lack of importance to me. In principle I see nothing wrong with giving children access to their school report cards first, though I don’t think I’d characterise the reverse situation as ‘utterly immoral’ or as a case of ‘abuse waiting to happen’ for most families. But any two people’s childhoods and school experiences will be very different, especially subjectively.

  3. […] celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These […]

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