There are two types of authors in the world: the one who can fill the back cover of his book with a giant photograph of himself, and everyone else. Oliver Sacks—whom the New York Times once dubbed “the poet laureate of contemporary medicine”—belongs to the first group. His newest book, The Mind’s Eye, is a collection of stories about people who lose essential faculties but nonetheless manage to live rich lives. The hardcover release (Knopf, $26.95) also offers a rare over-sized headshot of Dr. Sacks, his face in place of a summary.
This is strangely appropriate, though, because The Mind’s Eye is a personal book. Although there are four patients through whom we learn about alexia, aphasia, and stereoscopy (Sue, a neurobiologist, has the three-dimensionality of our world revealed to her in her fifties), the main character is Dr. Sacks himself. We observe his diligent diagnostic procedure and delight in his research tangents; we follow him through his clinical experience and into the swimming pool. But it is when Dr. Sacks himself becomes the patient that The Mind’s Eye separates itself from its ten sibling books.
In 2005, Dr. Sacks noticed “a sort of fluttering, a visual instability” while at the movies. The rest of the chapter “Persistence of Vision: A Journal” is the moving, fifty-seven-page account of the author’s eye cancer, including drawings of visual changes. Here is a particularly intense entry:
DECEMBER 22, 2005
4 A.M.: Woke. Cold. The fear. I open my right eye. The Darkness has grown again, is coming to encircle my little island of vision, my fixation point, my fovea. Soon it will be engulfed entirely.
After surgery to remove a tumor, Dr. Sacks lost vision in his right eye. There is a large chunk of his visual field that he can neither see nor be conscious of. As is the case with all the patients in the book, a neurological disability causes irretrievable loss.
But The Mind’s Eye is not about loss; it is about adaptation. Each patient who appears in the book, major and minor, finds ingenious ways to carry on. As usual Dr. Sacks, who has so popularized the brain, shows us both its frailty and its strength.