Oliver Sacks Posts

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 4), 9 July 2019

Dear Reader,

It is a tough choice to select the books I wish to mention in this newsletter. There is so much good literature being published — a delight to read. Many times the ideas and motives for a book are also tremendous. But sometimes the execution of the idea or perhaps even the production in the book fails. Sadly such moments leave the reader in a pall of gloom.

But let us begin with the first book, a gorgeous, gorgeous collection of essays by the late Oliver Sacks. British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author who passed away in 2015. Fortunately he was a prolific writer and left a magnificent literary estate. His posthumous publications have included two collections of essays. Everything in its Place is the second of these books. It consists of his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!”  Read on more in this blog post.

The second book which I read ages ago but was unable to write about since there was so much to dwell upon was debut writer Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It is impossible to put in a nutshell the feeling that this book leaves you with. It is a mix between disturbing and thought-provoking narrative. Perhaps it is best to reproduce the book blurb:

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Unsurprisingly this book has won or been shortlisted for many awards including the prestigious International Dylan Thomas Prize and Jhalak Prize. It has been a remarkable run for the filmmaker-turned-writer Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City is a tremendous book but it will be Guy Gunaratne’s third book ( if he ever does publish it) that will be the one to watch out for.

The last book is The Churches of India by Australian Joanne Taylor. It is a heavily illustrated book with an interesting collection of churches in India. This book is an attempt to put together a history of some of the better known churches of India. Unfortunately the definite article in the title raises expectations of it being a comprehensive overview of the churches in India, which it certainly is not. It is a book that is focused very much on the churches found on the well-established tourist circuit of Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry and Chandannagar. The influences of the Portugese, British and French colonial rulers is evident in the architecture. So the churches showcased are definitely magnificent and some of the buildings are many centuries old. Yet, the glaring gaps in the representation of churches even within the National Capital Region of Delhi such as of St. Johns Church, Meerut is unforgivable. It is a church that was consecrated by Bishop Heber when he visited India in the early nineteenth century. It is also the church associated with the events of 1857. It is about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Delhi so its exclusion is surprising. Similarly by focusing predominantly on magnificent colonial structures with a scrumptious display of images gives the impression that Christianity came to the subcontinent with colonialism and that is far from the truth. Christianity came to the subcontinent with the arrival of one of Christ’s disciples, St. Thomas, nearly two millennia ago — mentioned briefly in the book’s introduction. Subsequently congregations are known to gather in different parts of the country with churches as simple and bare as mud floors and thatched roofs to the more elaborate colonial buildings as documented in this book. The vast silences of churches that exist in central India, north east India with its wide variety of churches belonging to different denominations or the northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, is inexplicable. Finally, glaring errors such as referring to The Cathedral Church of the Redemption as “Roman Catholic” (p.230) is preposterous. As stated accurately in the book it was built for the Viceroy in 1931 by Henry Medd. Given that the British designed and built it for their Viceroy, a representative of the British Crown, it has to be an Anglican or Protestant church — a fact misrepresented in the entry. While the hardwork of the author is evident in putting together histories of the churches profiled, the reader’s trust in the facts presented is weakened considerably by these errors. Books like this while fulfilling a wonderful requirement of documenting these beautiful buildings mar their very own credibility by being slipshod in factchecking. Perhaps this is something the editorial team could have assisted the author with rather than the entire onus resting upon the author alone?

Till next week!

JAYA

9 July 2019

Oliver Sacks “Everything in its Place”

British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015. A huge loss to the world particularly to the world of writing and reading. He read voraciously, wrote beautifully and with a precision that is a sheer delight to behold. Fortunately after his passing, some of his unpublished writings were published in a collection called River of Consciousness and now Everything in its Place puts together his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” In Everything in its Place there are two particular instances when this happens. One when he wistfully records the demise of print collections in libraries in favour of digital books thereby losing the opportunity of serendipitous gems such as the 1873 book Megrim. This is what he writes in his essay “Libraries”:

When I was a child, my favourite place at home was the library, a large oak-paneled room with all four walls covered by bookcases — and a solid table for writing and studying in the middle. …The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favourite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

When I went to university, I had access to Oxford’s two great university libraries, the Radcliffe Science Library and the Bodleian, a wonderful general library that could trace itself back to 1602. …But the library I loved the most at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, weere the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me … .

I first came to New York City in 1965, and at that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of a refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

But a shift was occurring by the 1990s. I would continue to visit the library frequently, sitting at a table with a mountain of books in front of me, but students increasingly ignored the bookshelves, accessing what they needed with their computers. Few of them went to their shelves anymore. The books, so far as they were concerned, were unnecessary. And since the majority of users were no longer using the books themselves, the college decided, ultimately, to dispose of them.

I had no idea that this was happening — not only in the Einstein library but in college and public libraries all over the country. I was horrified when I visited the library recently and found the shelves, once overflowing, now sparsely occupied. Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything “of worth” had been digitized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft. I thought of how this library once cherished “old” books, had a special room for old and rare books; and how in 1967, rummaging through the stacks, I had found an 1873 book, Edward Liveing’s Megrim which inspired me to write my own first book.

The second instance is when Sacks rues his failing eyesight is robbing him of the pleasures of reading print books. For him it was the print book that held the greatest appeal and no amount of technological innovation such as audio books could persuade him to think otherwise. He has a point when he writes in “Reading the Fine Print”:

In January of 2006, when my vision began to decline, I wondered what I would do. There were audiobooks — I had recorded some of them myself — but I was quintessentially a reader, not a listener. I have been an inveterate reader as far back as I can remember — I often hold page numbers or the look of paragraphs and pages in my almost automatically, and I can instantly find my way to a particular passage in most of my books. I want books that belong to me, books whose intimate pagination will become dear and familiar. My brain is geared towards reading — …

We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.

there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one read’s in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.

Writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible — George Bernard Shaw called books the memory of the race. No one sort of book should be allowed to disappear, for we are all individuals, with highly indivualized needs and preferences — preferences embedded in our brains at every level, our individual neural patterns and networks creating a deeply personal engagement between author and reader.

This is so true! Any true-blooded reader would identify wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed. For me it rings true at another level too. My nine-year-old daughter prefers print to audio books for she claims “audio interferes with her imagination!” Till I read this essay I attributed it to a child’s quirk. Now I know better.

Read Everything in its Place! There is so much to discover.

1 July 2019

Book Post 37: 20 – 25 May 2019

Book Post 37 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

27 May 2019

Oliver Sacks’s “The River of Consciousness”

Sometimes it is impossible to “review” a book except to say “Read it”. Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness is a fine example of this.  It is a collection of his essays on diverse topics but with one objective — how does the brain work? How does it process? How does it affect memories? What is true and what is false? What is a figment of our imagination? What does science reveal? This is precisely the fundamental argument Siddharth Mukherjee makes in his Laws of Medicine TED talk. Irrespective of all the advancements in technology, it is the brain which remains the most important for the speed at which it analyses and processes information, constantly pushing known boundaries to discover new frontiers of knowledge that are so far unimaginable.

The River of Consciousness is a posthumous publication but in it is much food for thought. Whether it is discussing creative energies to how the brain works while analysing information as in the case of Charles Darwin or even how do children learn and process information are fascinating points to ponder upon. For instance Prof. Sacks says “Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or ‘motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.”

The River of Consciousness is an excellent book to possess and to return to often too.

To buy The River of Consciousness ( On Kindle ; Paperback ; Hardcover)

14 August 2018 

 

Book Post 4: 29 July – 4 August 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 4 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

6 August 2018

Literature on mental health

Jerry PintoThis past month I have spent a while reading literature about mental health. It was sparked off by the publication of the maginificent collection of essays edited by award-winning author, Jerry Pinto. A Book of Light: When a Loved One has a Different Mind consists of essays written by caregivers to mentally-challenged patients. These could be daughter, mother, son, father or even a close friend. All the essays are written by a caregiver who is also part of the immediate family so has witnessed the painful deterioration of the loved one. Some of the essays like Nirpuma Dutt on her adopted daughter though written using the literary device of an omniscient narrator is one of the most chilling and moving contributions. Every single essay stands out for the grief caused but also for the time and effort required in the caregiving which was mostly offered uncomplaingly and with total dedication. Amandeep Sandhu’s essay about his mother which I first read in draft many years ago continues to be powerful once published years later. As if this caregiving was meant to be. This was the truth. Jerry Pinto who won the Windham-Campbell prize in 2016 has been writing for years made his mark as a literary fiction writer with the splendid novel, Em and Hoom. A thinly disguised fictional account about his mother who remained in poor mental health for most of her life. It was twenty-six years in the making. Despite the vast variety of literature across genres and now his forays into translations, Jerry Pinto is at his best when writing about mental afflictions. There is a certain tenderness and sensitive understanding that seeps through his essays as it does in the introduction to this book and his curation of the essays.

Having read this splendid volume in one sitting I found some more books to read. For instance, Matt Haig’s powerful autobiography Reasons to Stay Alive. It is about his leading a perfectly normal life except to develop acute depression and have a nervous breakdown in his early twenties. He even attempted suicide but then slowly recovered with the help of his then-girlfriend and now wife, Andrea, and his parents. Today, he is a successful author for children and adults and is a social media influencer ( @matthaig1) .

When you are trapped inside something that feels so unreal, you look for anything that gives you a sense of your bearings. I craved knowledge. I craved facts. I searched for them like lifebuoys in the sea. …Things that occur in the mind can often be hidden. Indeed when I first became ill I spent a lot of energy on looking normal. People often only know someone is suffering if they tell them, and with depression that doesn’t always happen, especially if you are male ( more on that later). 

Then I discovered bestselling author Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy that explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. It is written at a pitch that can get disconcertingly high, it is not easy trying to keep pace with the ups and lows in her life which are surpringly palpable in the text as well. But what truly shines through is the struggle of managing daily life and yet how determined she is.  Simple things are daunting but the unimaginable fear she experienced when recording her audiobook turned her into a nervous wreck. So she finally turned to her friend, Neil Gaiman, for advice and this is what he texted her: “Pretend you’re good at it.” She took his advice to heart and shone.

Reasons to Stay Alive and Furiously Happy are two books written from the perspective of people who struggle with mental ill-health but have had the courage to write about it too. Offer an opinion that does not consider them over sensitive, peculiar and odd.

And then I read Oliver Sacks absolutely stupendous memoir On the Move. It was first published in April 2015 a few51JcHq846GL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_ weeks before he succumbed to cancer on 30 August 2015, exactly a year ago today. In fine literary form it reflects upon a richly memorable life that spans eight decades focusing on his fascination with neurology, science, music, literature and his strong links with his family. Oliver Sacks came from a family of doctors where even his mother was a renowned surgeon. His father and two elder brothers were general practitioners but Oliver Sacks decided to become a neurologist. What is extraordinary is his recognition that when he began medical school in the mid-1950s there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between neurophysiology and the actualities of how patients experienced neurological disorders. Neurology continued to follow the clinico-anatomical method set by Broca a century earlier, locating areas of damage in the brain and correlating these with symptoms; thus speech disturbances were correlated with damage to Broca’s speech area, paralysis with damage to motor areas, and so on. But by the mid-1980s scientists like Gerald M. Edelman were stating boldly that “We are at the beginning of the neuroscience revolution.” Having witnessed, documented and analysed significant neurological milestones writing about them in medical journals and popular magazines made him famous. It probably also helped recognise to some degree that mental ailments need to be discussed. Mentally ill patients are not pariah. Having firsthand experience of looking after a schizophrenic brother and extremely fond of a simple-minded aunt, a treasured member of their household he had a warm and sensitive generosity evident in the way he dealt with his patients too. More importantly he had a sense of history and an understanding to document what he experienced and analyse it. A rich and influential legacy he left on the way mentally-ill patients are perceived and how they can also learn to manage themselves. But at least he with his passion for neurological science made it possible for mental health to be made visible in public discourse. Otherwise how else would a well-known scientist and Pulitzer-award winner Siddhartha Mukherjee begin his fascinating account of the gene with a very personal account of his schizophrenic uncle?

Jerry Pinto ( Ed.) A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind Speaking Tiger, Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp.180. Rs. 399

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. Pp. 270 Rs 499

Jenny Lawson Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. Pp. 330 Rs 450

Oliver Sacks On the Move: A Life Picador, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. Rs 499

30 August 2016