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book review

Recalling the genius of Oliver Sacks

Elena Seibert

When a beloved author dies, readers mourn not only the loss of a life but the end of a career. The pleasure of anticipating that writer’s next book is suddenly over. Sometimes the blow is softened by the appearance of posthumous collections, but these often include unpublished work, which may not have been the authors’ best, or a hodgepodge of greatest hits.

Two books by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, have been published since his death in 2015, and both have avoided these pitfalls. The first, “Gratitude,” is a slim volume containing four moving personal essays Sacks wrote in the months after he learned that his cancer had metastasized. The second, “The River or Consciousness,” a charming and informative new collection of 10 essays that Sacks wrote mostly in the last decade of his life, is longer and more wide-ranging in subject but no less cohesive and satisfying.


Part of why this book — his 15th — hangs together so well is that he was involved in its compilation. A foreward reveals that just two weeks before his death Sacks determined the volume’s contents. Furthermore, several of the essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were edited by that journal’s late founder, Robert Silvers, to whom Sacks dedicated “The River of Consciousness.”

That this collection is thematically as well as stylistically consistent may not seem obvious at first. Sacks writes with equal passion and precision about the nervous system of the earthworm, George Harrison’s unconscious plagiarism of the pop hit “She’s So Fine” in his composition of “My Sweet Lord,” and William James’s experimentation with hashish (among many other topics). Yet he gravitates toward several overarching subjects again and again — memory, perception, the relationship between mind and brain — as if turning them in the light so that readers may appreciate them from different angles.


In “The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms,” Sacks explains that 19th century biologists expanded our understanding of how neural structure underlies behavior by studying jellyfish. In “The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist,” we learn that very early in his career, the father of psychoanalysis also studied the nervous systems and behavior of primitive fish, and he believed “his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it.”

Aging and, specifically the struggle to remain creative as we grow older, is a recurrent and poignant theme. In “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers” Sacks recounts how, late in his life and in poor health, Darwin turned his attention from animals to plants, continuing to elucidate his theory of evolution when he could no longer undertake voyages. In “The Fallibility of Memory” Sacks grapples with a contradiction regarding his own aging: After he turned 60 his memories seemed to become both more vivid and less reliable. This realization occasions not regret or self-pity but a fascinating exploration of how memories are formed.

Darwin, Freud, and James reappear throughout “The River of Consciousness,” and though Sacks was far too modest to place himself in that pantheon, it’s clear that, like them, he was a polymath. While “The River of Consciousness” is not a memoir — Sacks wrote several fine ones, including “Uncle Tungsten,” about his childhood in wartime England, and “On the Move,” about his troubled young adulthood — Sacks peppers this new book with personal reminiscences that offer a vivid portrait of the development of his omnivorous intellectual life. The boy who spent hours performing experiments in a home chemistry lab and longed to catch plants in the act of growing through time-lapse photography grew into the man who recorded in a notebook each word he misheard and toyed with the idea of cataloging every possible human tic. In addition to these endearing recollections, Sacks revisits some of his most popular works, though in fresh contexts. For example, he recalls the slow-moving Parkinsonian patients he profiled in “Awakenings,” published in 1973 and subsequently made into a popular film, in an essay about the concept of speed.


What really unifies “The River of Consciousness” is the unique combination of intellectual rigor and childlike amazement, of bookishness and warmth, which characterizes all of Sacks’s writing. Which other writer who employs footnotes so liberally also so often inspires laughter and tears? In his essay about Darwin’s botanical studies Sacks might have been describing this new and welcome posthumous collection: “It is . . . not militancy or polemic that shines out of the . . . book; it is sheer joy, delight in what he was seeing.’’


By Oliver Sacks

Knopf, 256 pp., $27

Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and writer in residence in the division of general internal medicine at MGH. She can be reached at www.suzannekoven.com