Oliver Sacks is going blind. And he’s writing a book about music. If you don’t know him, you might want to.
As a writer, Sack’s work and method is a model to aspire to. His is one of those rare scientific minds that does not dissect the life out of his subject. His soul shares in the sufferings of his patients and takes every loss as a path to knowledge. The following excerpts are from a Seed Magazine piece about him called “The Listener”.
Sacks has used the broken brain as a point of entry into the mind, so that readers learn about the perception of colors from a color-blind painter, or about the structure of memory from a man who has none. But the real lesson of Sacks’s work goes far beyond the confines of scientific knowledge. His case histories are essays in empathy, sincere attempts to enter into the experience of someone else, to know the individual and not just the disease. Sacks wants the kind of knowledge that can be known only through love, through listening.
…Sacks’s latest book is Musicophilia, an exploration of the musical mind. As in his previous works, such as An Anthropologist on Mars, or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a series of ordinary people transformed by their extraordinary neurological conditions. He writes, for instance, of Tony Cicoria, who, after being struck by lightning, suddenly developed an insatiable obsession with Chopin’s piano music. Before the accident, Tony had been a respected surgeon, with little interest in classical music. But now he insisted on spending all of his spare time practicing the piano. He even began composing his own pieces, “giving form to the music continually running in his head.”
Sacks also describes the case of Martin, who developed uncanny musical talents after contracting meningitis as a child. While the affliction impaired many aspects of Martin’s mind, it left him with a limitless auditory memory. And then there’s Mrs. C., who was besieged by musical hallucinations after becoming deaf. She couldn’t stop hearing Christmas carols.