‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

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.


Is the crew plural? Collective complications

March 16, 2017

Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all his work, it’s a real treat. But one grammar-related item caught my copy-editor’s eye and is worth examining briefly.

En route to Micronesia, Sacks’s plane lands on Johnston atoll, a heavily militarised mini-island then used to store and test nuclear and chemical weapons. A rough landing damages the craft’s tyres, which need repairing. When the passengers go to stretch their legs in the interval, they are told the island is off-limits. Sacks reads and observes while he waits:

Read the rest of this entry »

Oliver Sacks on echolalia in Tourette’s syndrome

July 8, 2015

One of the neurological case studies in Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) involves Dr Carl Bennett, a surgeon in British Columbia who has Tourette’s syndrome. Sacks spends a lot of time with Bennett at home, work, and play, to learn more about the condition and how it affects his daily life.

Oliver Sacks - an anthropologist on mars - seven paradoxical tales - book coverPeople with Tourette’s are often depicted stereotypically as beset by elaborate physical twitching and involuntary swearing and the like, but this oversimplifies a very complex condition. In Bennett’s case the Tourette’s never affects his surgery, but outside of such contexts the compulsions of touching and vocalising do present to a striking degree.

Bennett’s Tourette vocalisations are not so much swears and other taboo expressions as ‘juicy’ phrases devoid of real meaning (at least in his use of them), uttered over and over again. To satisfy this urge, Bennett systematically collects odd names. One passage in the book describes how, after a calm bout of morning exercise – half an hour on an exercise bike, smoking a pipe, reading a medical book – Bennett’s echolalia returns in force:

he kept digging at his belly, which was trim, and muttering, ‘Fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat,’ and then, puzzlingly, ‘Fat and a quarter tit.’ (Sometimes the ‘tit’ was left out.)

‘What does it mean?’ I asked.

Read the rest of this entry »

A world of fragmented words

October 13, 2011

The Man with a Shattered World (1972) is a short, extraordinary book about a Russian soldier, “Zasetsky”, who at 23 was shot in the head in World War II and spent the rest of his life “in a kind of fog all the time, like a heavy half-sleep”, trying to put his mind and life back together.

He suffered great pain and confusion as a result of his injury. Memory loss was severe, physical coordination and proprioception much impaired. He forgot how to gesture to a nurse for help, how to speak with doctors, how to kiss his family when he finally got home. Vision and movement were gravely problematic; thought was torturous.

In spite of these daunting difficulties, he taught himself to read and write again, and wrote a journal of his experience that grew to 3000 pages painstakingly written (and rewritten) over 25 years. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria adapted it for the aforenamed book, adding context to extracts from his patient’s notebooks.

A passage from Luria:

Intricate turns of speech that are so routine to us that we fail to notice their complexity are, in fact, codes that have taken centuries to develop. We readily employ them, because we have mastered linguistic patterns – our most basic means of communication. . . .

The man who wrote this journal no longer had the capacity for such an instantaneous grasp of intricate patterns (whether of spatial or linguistic relationships). The damage to his cerebral cortex had affected precisely those parts of the brain that enable one to evaluate what he has seen (as neurologists would say, to ‘simultaneously synthesize separate parts into a complete whole’).

All Zasetsky’s vision to the right of centre was gone; on the left were large gaps. This, coupled with aphasia and other cognitive disabilities, made reading intensely difficult. He was horrified to discover that he couldn’t understand the sign on a bathroom door, and that the text of a newspaper looked like gibberish.

But he made progress:

When I begin to read a word, even a word like golovokruzheniye [dizziness], and look at the letter k, the upper right point, I only see the letters on the left (v–o). I can’t see anything on the right of the letter k or around it. To the left of it I can see the two letters v and o but nothing further to the left. If someone were to trace the letters further to the left with a pencil, I’d see where the movement of the pencil began, but not the letters.

Writing too was onerous. It was easier for him to write automatically, so he learned to do this and would then read over, letter by letter, what he had written to see if it made sense and to work out what came next.

Sometimes he would strain over a page for a week or two, trying to find the right words for an idea and remember them long enough to fit them together and arrange them in writing.

I have some peculiar kind of forgetfulness or amnesia with almost any word, or else I’m very slow. I can’t remember a word or, if I can, I don’t know what it means. . . . If I hear the word table I can’t work out what it is right away, what it is related to. I just have a feeling the word is somewhat familiar . . .

Even a short paragraph read aloud to Zasetsky quickly broke into meaningless fragments. Hearing it repeatedly was of little help, because his sense of syntax was lost. It was a generalised problem: he had lost his understanding of what things meant and how they worked, how they fit together and related to one other: the world he experienced was shattered.

Zasetsky was tormented by his brain injury but determined to communicate it as best he could. Narrating his struggle to make sense of things became a full-time occupation – an obsession. The Man with a Shattered World is a very sad tale, but no reader can fail to feel deep admiration for its subject’s dedication to his task, and for his unfaltering humanity.

Here is Oliver Sacks speaking about Luria and the book: