Top critical review
Stick to the essays
Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2015
I greatly admire the writing of the late Oliver Sacks, but if you have not read Sacks before, do not begin with “Uncle Tungsten.” It is not Sacks’s best work. His forte is the essay, not the book-length memoir. There is no more moving example of this than his last published essay on, of all things, gefilte fish, published in The New Yorker just a short time before he died.
“Uncle Tungsten” is an uneasy hybrid of memoir and science history. As a boy, Sacks fell in love, in a most precocious way, with chemistry. He was encouraged in this by several family members in a most remarkable family, chief among them his Uncle Dave, the Uncle Tungsten (he owned a light bulb factory) of the title. The family recollections are the most appealing part of the book, but they constitute only about a third of its length. The rest is filled with little accounts of the achievements of the great 19th century men of science, men like Humphrey Davy, John Dalton, Joseph Priestley, and others. As the literary glue between the science parts and the family parts, Sack supplies an account of his discovery of these scientists and his own attempts to replicate their discoveries in his home laboratory. This doesn’t work very well, since the writing in the science parts is workmanlike and often simply not very interesting. One begins to think “filler,” as if some editor had suggested Sacks write a memoir and it turned out that the “personal” parts didn’t quite add up to a book.
Oddly, the science parts also lack attribution, although the information must have come from somewhere. There is not even a bibliography.
So stick to the essays, whether in the collections, like " The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” or in periodicals or even the newspaper. Sacks wrote several compelling short pieces for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times about the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying of cancer. This is the sort of writing this gifted man did best.