Oliver Sacks

I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat while traveling around Europe in my younger days. It had a profound effect on me for several reasons.

For one thing, I became aware for the first time how fragile is this thing called reality, this thing we take for granted. Our brains are constantly creating the reality we perceive. It’s a very active and complex process, and a lot of things can go wrong.

Oliver Sacks, who died today, was the first person who truly made me see what wondrous and astonishing creatures we really are.

For another thing, he showed me a different way of thinking about science. Rather than a cold, clinical “search for facts”, he showed that it can be a compassionate, human centered enterprise, suffused at its core with ethical values and respect for the humanity and dignity of others.

Through the years, this was my go-to book for giving to students and young people. Every once in a while, I would meet one of these people, perhaps ten or twelve years later, and they would invariably tell me what a profound effect the book had had on their own life.

Much later, I had the pleasure and privilege of becoming friends with Dr. Sacks. In person he turned out to be just as warm and insightful as I had imagined.

But in addition, for all his unfailing graciousness, he was surprisingly unsentimental. He did not seem to suffer fools or egotists gladly, and he was quite willing to speak his mind when he saw hypocrisy.

I’ve always thought that in a truly fair world, a few exceptional people should get a free pass, a “get out of jail free” card that lets them live forever, continuing to bless our world with their genius and insight.

I put William Shakespeare on this list, and maybe Jane Austen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a few others. Oliver Sacks is definitely on it.

One thought on “Oliver Sacks”

  1. I’m going to miss Dr. Sacks’ insight, personality and teaching immensely. Like you, his writing and observations also gave me my ‘aha’ moment about human nature. Loved his approach to medicine, philosophy and etymology. I really hope his work remains in the foreground and a regular source of inspiration despite his physical departure.

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