Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dr. Oliver Sacks:Resiliency & compensation


Those whose familiarity with Oliver Sacks extends only to his vivid book titles — “The Island of the Color­blind,” “An Anthropologist on Mars,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” — may picture his writing as a gallery of grotesques, a parade of the exotically impaired. Sacks, a practicing neurologist, does specialize in case studies of highly unusual patients. But even as he entertains and diverts with his dramatic tales, Sacks has always been up to something else: he is gently educating us about the frailties and flaws — and the strengths and capacities — of “normal” people, those whose afflictions are of the most ordinary sort. You may never have confused your spouse for an item of outerwear, but have you ever failed to recognize the face of an acquaintance? Fumbled for a word that eluded your grasp? Read a sentence three times and still didn’t get it?

Such familiar slips, and how we handle them, are the stealth subjects of Sacks’ latest book. “The Mind’s Eye” is a collection of essays — some of which have already appeared in The New Yorker — but it has a remarkably graceful coherence of theme, tone and approach. Once again, Sacks explores our shared condition through a series of vivid characters: the woman who couldn’t talk, the man who couldn’t read, the “prosopagnosic” who couldn’t identify her own face in a photograph. (For those who wonder just how Sacks locates such people, it soon becomes clear that many of his patients find him, after recognizing themselves in his writing. They enter his care through the pages of his books, and in turn become characters in his next round of stories.) [...]

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