While Oliver Sacks is no longer with us, his brain is. The noted dead man throws the spotlight on who we are in his latest effort. Spookily accurate.
The late, great scientist, author and thinker, Oliver Sacks, parted company with the earth in 2015, but his work lives on (as it should). The River of Consciousness, a collection of essays mostly having been previously published in the New York Review of Books, is a gift in that it allows readers to rediscover (or, discover, if you’ve never read or seen Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) Dr Sacks: botanist, science historian, marine biologist, neurologist. He was quite the hyphenate (my own self? Blogger; chardonnay socialist; Cancerian). The book contains 10 essays, exploring such notions (broadly) as memory, Freud, evolution and how our perception of speed can vary from one person to the next. It’s fascinating.
Each essay gives a historical context to other noteworthy thinkers, including Charles Darwin, Freud and William James. He goes into some detail as to Darwin’s work amid his voyages on the Beagle (much like Tom Wolfe did last year in his intriguing non-fiction Kingdom of Speech) which gives the work a literary bent – as the pull quote on the book’s jacket suggests, he is the “poet laureate of medicine”. His enthusiasm for the minutiae of scientific inquiry – in that the inquisitive mind that sought out the reasons why things occurred the way they did, leading to hypothesis, which eventually are proved right (the moth with the ludicrously long proboscis theorised as the sole way to extract pollen from particularly long, hollow flowers, subsequently proved correct decades later) – his pure excitement and joy at these very notions, make the book read like the exclamations of a giddy school kid.
Sacks’s writing was (in this context, is) bristling with readability and enthusiasm – even when he quotes large swathes of mathematic and Euclidian theory – you can’t help but sit back and admire the admiration (which is meta, I’ll admit). He engages you by recounting examples of plagiarism, by providing examples of how stories, songs and plays were all lifted from other sources by artists and thinkers as diverse as Helen Keller, George Harrison and Tom Stoppard.
It’s insightful, and it’s almost confronting to read, given that Sacks was on his way out as it was being penned. There’s a sense of the inevitable, but at the same time, that touch of cheeky scientific inquiry about the next steps.