A DOCTOR WITH VISION: Though He Struggled with Eyesight and Visual Perception, Oliver Sacks Wrote Books That Helped the World See More Clearly

By Heitman, Danny | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2020 | Go to article overview

A DOCTOR WITH VISION: Though He Struggled with Eyesight and Visual Perception, Oliver Sacks Wrote Books That Helped the World See More Clearly


Heitman, Danny, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Five years after his death, the famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks sometimes seems more present in the popular culture than ever.

Sacks is best known for Awakenings, the 1973 account of his research to help victims locked within their own bodies because of encephalitis. It was made into a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams, advancing the fame of a physician who also gained a wide community of readers with bestsellers such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Hallucinations, and The Island of the Colorblind. Those books defined Sacks's gift for distilling the unusual medical disorders of his patients into lyrical prose, helping to explain the mysteries of the human brain to a general audience.

Sacks's own medical condition made headlines on February 19, 2015, when he announced in a beautifully moving New York Times op-ed that he had terminal cancer. His death the following August prompted the publication of that commentary and related essays about his final months in a slender chapbook, Gratitude.

Two more posthumous essay collections have followed--The River of Consciousness, which appeared in 2017, and Everything in Its Place, published last year. Meanwhile, other writers have produced works about Sacks. He figured largely in Paul Theroux's 2018 nonfiction collection, Figures in a Landscape, and last year's And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?, Lawrence Weschler's biographical memoir of the celebrated doctor.

They complement Insomniac City, an affectionate 2017 remembrance by Sacks's partner, the author and photographer Bill Hayes, of the six years they shared after meeting in 2008.

Hayes has finished a screenplay version of the book, now in development as a feature film. Meanwhile, a Ric Burns documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, was slated to roll out in theaters in May, with public television planning to air its American broadcast debut next year.

Hayes continues to help curate Sacks's literary legacy as he tends to his own busy writing career. The two met after Sacks wrote an admiring letter about The Anatomist, Hayes's 2008 book about the man behind Gray's Anatomy. Other Hayes books include Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood and Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir.

His newest project, Sweat: A History of Exercise, will be published next year. Hayes has also produced a collection of his photographs, How New York Breaks Your Heart, and another picture book is in the works. It's a busy life, and helping tend to the writing Sacks left behind is, it seems, an occupation of its own. There are plans to distill Sacks's vast correspondence of some 95,000 items into a book of his letters. "I love sharing the stuff I find," Hayes said of Sacks's literary trove.

Sacks was a compulsively productive writer. He was, Hayes wrote in a fond 2018 essay for The New York Times, "a man of many enthusiasms--for ferns, cephalopods, motorbikes, minerals, swimming, smoked salmon, and Bach, to name a few--but none more so than for words."

Although he touched on many topics in his books, including his English boyhood, move to America, and extensive travels, Sacks frequently returned to the subject of vision--how humans see, or fail to see, the world. "Visual perception is a theme that runs throughout all of his work," Hayes said in a phone interview from his New York home.

It was a mystery that Sacks confronted on a deeply personal level. Throughout his life, as he revealed in his 2010 collection of essays, The Mind's Eye, Sacks suffered from face blindness, a frequent inability to recognize faces and places that were a routine part of his days. The condition, formally known as prosopagnosia, was a continuing challenge. "I did not think too much about this as a child," Sacks told readers, "but by the time I was a teenager, in a new school, it was often a cause of embarrassment. My frequent inability to recognize schoolmates would cause them bewilderment and, sometimes, offense--it did not occur to them (why should it? …

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