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Oliver Sacks

Tales of Music and the Brain

A-MusicophiliaRalph Waldo Emerson said that music "whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are." In a series of case studies, Oliver Sacks examines the scarcely understood powers of music by using his considerable gift for anecdote and a deep clinical understanding. Exploring music-based illnesses (such as musical hallucinations and extreme instances of being unable to get a song out of one's head) as well as the miraculous healing capacity of music to impel otherwise frozen Parkinson's patients to move, Sacks's vignettes prompt innumerable questions that are as illuminating as they are provocative.
Knopf. 400 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400040817

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Sacks has an expert bedside manner: informed but humble, self-questioning, literary without being self-conscious. He uses anecdotes and thumbnail sketches to deftly illustrate physiological explanations that lie behind a behavioral continuum extending from bizarre self-defeating pathology to the very heights of creativity." Mark Coleman

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Sacks is not in the business of answers carved in stone. ... His ultimate gift to readers is a sustained sense of wonder at the enormous variability of individual human experience." Katherine Dunn

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"While the stories Sacks relates are not as fantastical and colorful as in previous books, they are just as compelling. That is in no small part due to Sacks' sensitivity to the subject. His lifelong love for music infuses the writing, and he occasionally gives his own ear-witness testimony of some of the musical disorders." Andrew Druckenbrod

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, Sacks's catalog of oddities sheds little systematic light on the mystery of music. ... Readers will probably be grateful that Sacks, unlike Freud, is happy to revel in phenomena that he cannot yet explain." Anthony Gottlieb

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What makes Musicophilia cohere is Sacks himself. He is the book's moral argument. Curious, cultured, caring, in his person Sacks justifies the medical profession and, one is tempted to say, the human race." Peter D. Kramer

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, Sacks' clinical dissection of the way the brain experiences the joy and rapture of music can leave one feeling cold. ... But at the end of some of the 29 essays, you're left feeling like what Sacks is doing is akin to sucking the glee out of a magic trick by explaining the science of the illusion." Lisa Arthur

Critical Summary

Perhaps, renowned author Oliver Sacks's insight into neurological curiosities gives him a key to reviewers' criteria. His nine previous books, including Awakenings (1973) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), have all seen widespread critical and commercial success. And critics agree that Musicophilia is a fine addition to Sacks's oeuvre, even though it differs somewhat from his previous works: instead of focusing exclusively on other people's disorders, Sacks, an amateur pianist, indulges in some self-examination (one reviewer sees a link with his autobiographical Uncle Tungsten), including his own fleeting experience with amusia, a disorder that causes music to sound like sheer clatter. Luckily, it didn't affect his ear for fine prose and provocative storytelling.