The untold story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, his own most singular patient
"[An] engrossing biographical memoir. This is Sacks at full blast: on endless ward rounds, observing his post-encephalitic patients . . . exulting over horseshoe crabs and chunks of Iceland spar." —Barbara Kiser, Nature
The author Lawrence Weschler began spending time with Oliver Sacks in the early 1980s, when he set out to profile the neurologist for his own new employer, The New Yorker. Almost a decade earlier, Dr. Sacks had published his masterpiece Awakenings—the account of his long-dormant patients’ miraculous but troubling return to life in a Bronx hospital ward. But the book had hardly been an immediate success, and the rumpled clinician was still largely unknown. Over the ensuing four years, the two men worked closely together until, for wracking personal reasons, Sacks asked Weschler to abandon the profile, a request to which Weschler acceded. The two remained close friends, however, across the next thirty years and then, just as Sacks was dying, he urged Weschler to take up the project once again. This book is the result of that entreaty.
Weschler sets Sacks’s brilliant table talk and extravagant personality in vivid relief, casting himself as a beanpole Sancho to Sacks’s capacious Quixote. We see Sacks rowing and ranting and caring deeply; composing the essays that would form The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; recalling his turbulent drug-fueled younger days; helping his patients and exhausting his friends; and waging intellectual war against a medical and scientific establishment that failed to address his greatest concern: the spontaneous specificity of the individual human soul. And all the while he is pouring out a stream of glorious, ribald, hilarious, and often profound conversation that establishes him as one of the great talkers of the age. Here is the definitive portrait of Sacks as our preeminent romantic scientist, a self-described “clinical ontologist” whose entire practice revolved around the single fundamental question he effectively asked each of his patients: How are you? Which is to say, How do you be?
A question which Weschler, with this book, turns back on the good doctor himself.
Oliver Sacks, the celebrated neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, comes across as a fascinating head case himself in this rollicking memoir. Weschler (Everything That Rises), the emeritus director of the New York Institute of the Humanities, recounts his long friendship with Sacks, focusing on the early 1980s, when Weschler was trying to write a New Yorker profile and biography of the doctor. The book is indeed largely about how the mercurial, neurotic, larger-than-life Sacks was on any given day. It unfolds in visits, outings, and restaurant meals as he veers between ebullient enthusiasms and depression and as the conversation meanders from his motorcycle speeding tickets to his weight-lifting championship, long-distance swimming exploits around the Bronx, his readings of the philosophers Hume and Leibniz, his writer's block, the lifestyles of octopuses, and his childhood Sabbath rituals. The one constant is Sacks's almost outrageous empathy for his neuropsychiatry patients (Weschler watched Sacks, a former drug addict, tell a patient that daily marijuana is okay but she should cut back on PCP to once a month). Sacks's many fans will love this entertaining portrait of a charismatic original. Photos.