Top positive review
A nice collection for Oliver Sacks fans
Reviewed in the United States on July 17, 2017
Two weeks before his death from cancer, Oliver Sacks outlined the contents of The River of Consciousness for the team that would oversee its publication. If you knew you were dying, what would you want to leave behind? It was this question as much as my appreciation of his other works that drew me to this book.
In their obituary of Sacks, the New York Times said that he wrote about “the Brain’s Quirks”, and The River of Consciousness fits that description well. It is a collection of ten articles, some of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books, on subjects like the mental perception of time and speed, the mental lives of plants and worms, the fallibility of memory, and a mental feeling of disorder. The last article, “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science”, explores instances of significant scientific discoveries that were underappreciated or entirely ignored in their time. The first article, “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”, is somewhat different in subject but is quintessential Sacks: “I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life….I trace back this sense of biological meaning to Darwin’s epiphany on the meaning of flowers, and to my own intimations of this in a London garden, nearly a lifetime ago”. That quote sums up well the style of the articles, which mixes science, case history, and Sacks’ unique autobiographical memories of a life wondering why and pursuing knowledge, and is often philosophical in tone.
I have read several of Sacks’ books and consider them to be aimed at a fairly intelligent and well-educated general audience. Many of these articles seem more academic in tone. If you read a hard-copy edition of the book you might want to keep your phone handy to Google terms Sacks did not bother to define, like “paraphasia” or “proprioception” or to look up a picture of a Necker cube, since I doubt a reader would appreciate Sacks’ discussion of the phenomenon fully if they were not already familiar with it. I found myself struggling to understand assertions like “Charcot was convinced …that although no anatomical lesions could be demonstrated in patients with hysterical paralyses, there must nonetheless be a ‘physiological lesion’… located in the same part of the brain where, in an established neurological paralysis, an anatomical lesion…would be found.” Unless you have a truly impressive breadth of knowledge and vocabulary, prepare to be occasionally challenged.
The River of Consciousness, in sum, is a fitting representation of Oliver Sacks: a brilliant mind rejoicing in life and eager to share his joy with the rest of us.