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.