It didn’t take me long to find the first reference i made to Oliver Sacks’ work: it’s in the first significant piece of writing it did, for my undergraduate dissertation on the psychology and neurophysiology of interpretation. It’s easy to find the influences on my postgraduate research too, into communication theory and language. And as i skim through the draft manuscript of my current book, on music and learning, his thinking and passion shine through. Indeed, his own book ‘Musicophilia‘ was one spark igniting my own writing on the subject.
From his early roots in England, to his time in the Bronx, from his foundations in science to his discovery of literature, he spoke with an eloquence and insight that few could match. Oliver Sacks possessed the rare ability to understand the complex, but to make it beautiful, to feel the pain but tell a beautiful story, beautifully. His writing is engaging, insightful and deeply empathetic.
‘Awakenings‘ may be his most famous book, a narrative of his time with survivors of the ‘sleepy sickness‘, a ward full of comatose patients who he ‘woke up‘ after decades of inactivity using a new drug. A glorious summer of rebirth ensued before, slowly, they slipped back into the darkness. The Holywood film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams bought the story to millions, but it is, at heart, a story of compassionate science, of people, not statistics or analysis.
‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat‘ was an exploration of bemusement and incapacitation, told with kindness and humanity. ‘Seeing Voices‘, one of my favourite texts, explores sign language as an emergent and individual language and an insight into how the brain strives to communicate, to share and learn.
He was equally capable of turning the spotlight inwards: in ‘Migraine‘ he explored his own experiences of debilitating bouts through art, literature and science. It’s a great example of his cross border explorations.
Prolific throughout his life, ‘Musicophilia‘ represents, to me, a perfect tribute to a curious mind: a travel through the language of sound, the underlying neurology, but also the beauty and emergent meaning of this deep routed phenomenon.
I have always named Sacks as one of the greatest influences not just on my thinking, but on my writing: his clear style felt no need to boast it’s intellectual foundations, and yet those foundations were clearly there.
When the time came this year, where he received the diagnosis of a terminal cancer, he approached it in stoic fashion, picking up a pen and sharing his hopes, fears and sense of a life well lived. Writing with humility and a calmness that comes through wisdom hard earned.
Whilst expected, it was with sadness that i read of his death at the weekend: the world is poorer for his passing, but i take consolation in the books on my shelf, books that i’m sure will be constant companions in the next chapters of my own journey. And what better legacy than his: a man who devoted his life to understanding how our minds work and to helping others as he did so.