A new Oliver Sacks book is always an anticipated event, as the library’s hold list for this book shows. His blend of scientific accuracy, accessible writing style, and empathy for his subject shine through. It also means that his 12 books are still in print even though the first one, Awakenings, was published almost 40 years ago. Williamsburg Regional Library owns Awakenings and seven of his other books and they are still flying regularly off the library shelves. My colleague, Barry, wrote about Musicophilia in 2009, but I think a new Oliver Sacks book is worthy of another post.
I often check out other books that purport to be about the workings of the brain, because I am fascinated by the idea that the squishy stuff in my head is doing things I’m not planning even though I feel like I am making decisions. Sadly, I often don’t finish them because they read like the author is using neurology to push a point of view or they are so dry it sends me to sleep. Each of us is using our brain to read this, but what is actually happening in that ten pound lump on top of our shoulders?
Hallucinations aren’t a subject I had considered much before, but it seems that the blotches of deep color I see sometimes as I fall asleep are officially hallucinations. I would have thought real hallucinations would be more exciting!
Hallucinations is a challenging book – not because it’s difficult to read – it’s definitely not (some medical vocabulary is clearly explained by Oliver Sacks). Rather, it is challenging because it stands assumptions on their heads. People who hear voices are crazy, right? This is assumed in popular culture, for instance in Harry Potter when Ron and Hermione tell Harry that hearing voices is not a good sign even for a wizard. But in real life “most people who hear voices are not schizophrenic” and auditory hallucinations are far commoner than I thought.
Like all Oliver Sacks’ books this one is filled with little known facts such as every culture has “found and sought hallucinogenic drugs and used them, first and foremost for sacramental purposes” and also filled with startling information like people usually find Charles Bonnet syndrome hallucinations “unthreatening” and sometimes enjoy and look forward to them.
This is science writing at its best as it is readable, but still scholarly. The book includes an index and long bibliography. It has extensive footnotes, which are interesting, but sometimes I found them distracting as they took up almost half the page. Oliver Sacks’ books are as fascinating as the best novel when, for a short while, the reader can live someone else’s life. The reader can feel Sacks’ profound understanding of the humanity of each of his patients, however odd their conditions make them appear.
If you are an Oliver Sacks fan, then rush out to get this book (Williamsburg Regional Library users can use the link below to place a hold on it). If you are new to Oliver Sacks, but like memoirs, or you like science writing or health writing, try it and you may get hooked. If you or a family member has been troubled by hallucinations Oliver Sacks in his warm, inclusive way, may make you feel less alone.
Check the WRL catalog for Hallucinations