Bookmarks Issue: 
Oliver Sacks

A-The Minds EyeOver his long career as an esteemed neurologist and writer, Sacks has addressed myriad topics concerning how the brain functions (or fails to) in 11 books--from Awakenings (1973) to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and the recent Musicophilia ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008). In this collection of essays, Sacks himself steps into the clinical spotlight.

The Topic: In these seven essays (some previously published in the New Yorker), Oliver Sacks offers case studies of people who have lost what most of us consider to be key brain functions: the capacity to recognize faces; the ability to read; and the power of speech, to name a few. Lillian, a famed concert pianist, becomes unable to read music; Sue, a neurobiologist, is suddenly able to see in three dimensions in middle-age; and Howard, a novelist, loses his capacity to read. Then there is Sacks himself, who brings his clinical studies to a deeply personal level by relating the story of his own lifelong face blindness and recent eye cancer. Throughout, he asks fundamental questions about the relationship among visual perception, language, and cognition and explores our amazing ability to adapt to seemingly insurmountable neurological obstacles.
Knopf. 263 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307272089

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Intimately, relentlessly, Sacks shares his experience, turning the familiar analytical focus, experimental curiosity, and descriptive rigor upon himself. ... Sacks's eloquent combination of clinical history, scholarship, wisdom, and--now--personal experience, brings us close to what [a lack of sense of sight] might be like." Floyd Skloot

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"The best parts of The Mind's Eye occur when Sacks writes about himself not as a medical professional, but--using the same open-heartedness found in his standout memoir Uncle Tungsten--as a fearful patient. ... His combination of intellectual rigor with personable humility--prevalent throughout his work--is at its most effective in the most moving chapter of the book, ‘The Persistence of Vision: A Journal.'" Alex Lemon

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... For the patient's benefit and for ours, he illuminates every uncanny detail, brings out every excruciating irony." Annie Murphy Paul

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The underlying and more gripping subtext is Oliver Sacks observing Oliver Sacks. ... Depending on your age and degree of denial of sickness and mortality, you may find, as I did, that the cumulative effect of the case histories is a lurking apprehension that, without warning or apparent reason, the healthiest of us can be stripped of our sense of self." Robert Burton

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"There is therefore something rather old-fashioned about Oliver Sacks's books, with their rich clinical material, use of patients' words, and leisurely description of symptoms. ... Sacks always manages to satisfy two appetites at the same time: that for the freakish, and that for knowledge." Anthony Daniels

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sacks' repeated insistence in this book on the inability of one person to imagine the perceptions of another seems to throw his project into question. If we cannot imagine our way into the minds of people radically different from ourselves, then what is the point of all these elaborate and gorgeously detailed case studies in The Mind's Eye?" Meehan Crist

Guardian (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Sacks fans will get what they want: the comfortable prose, the well-crafted storytelling and the generosity of spirit that, by all accounts, is no literary concoction but part of the protoplasm of the man himself. ... But I confess there were times when my fingers were racing my eyes in a footnote-stumbling scramble to get through to the end of certain chapters." Paul Broks

Critical Summary

Critics agreed that while The Mind's Eye could have been just another collection of Sacks's absorbing case studies, what distinguishes this volume is the inclusion of the author's reflection on his own ocular melanoma, which threatens his life. Sacks's personal story turns what would have otherwise been fascinating case studies into "something altogether more personal, terrifying, and urgent" (Boston Globe). As always, Sacks writes with his trademark empathy, erudition, optimism, and ease. A few critics complained of overly detailed case histories; others thought Sacks formulaic. Overall, however, The Mind's Eye is a graceful and coherent study of the complex relationship of brain and vision. n