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on August 19, 2001
These are true tales from a clinical neurologist's notebook, but this isn't just any neurologist. Oliver Sacks, author of the justly celebrated, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986) and Awakenings (1973), which was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, and other works, is a gifted writer with a fine sense of story and an even finer sense of humanity. He has a style, how shall I say, both affecting and fascinating, yet studiously objective, a style laced with footnotes and clinical observations, historical comparisons and wisdom. Part of the power of these tales, and of all of Sacks's work, is his ability to be totally engaged and to identify with the subject while part of him is off to the side observing with scientific impartiality. This makes for a compelling read. If you've never read Sacks before, you are in for a very special treat.
These tales are paradoxical because "Defects, disorders, diseases" can bring out "latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen or even be imaginable, in their absence." It is this "<creative> potential, that forms the central theme of this book" (from Sacks's Preface, page xvi).
The first tale, "The Case of the Colorblind Painter" is about a successful artist who worked in color all his life only to became colorblind at age sixty-five, and the effect this had on his life and work. The second, "The Last Hippie" is about an amnesiac man with a frontal lobe tumor that left him stranded in the sixties. Sacks tells this sad, pathetic story with vivid detail, and characteristically ends it with a footnote, a footnote of such warmth and genuine identification that we are moved to tears. (Don't skip the footnotes!)
The third tale, "A Surgeon's Life," is an amazing account of a Canadian surgeon with Tourette's syndrome. It is here that we begin to see the central theme of this book in brilliant illumination. Dr. Carl Bennett, riddled with the bizarre tics characteristic of the disorder, compulsions that cause him to throw things, to touch things again and again in a ritualistic manner, to flail, jump and jerk about, nonetheless became a very successful (and beloved) doctor of surgery. Sacks scrubs up with Dr. Bennett and goes into surgery with him, during which, miraculously, the tics disappear for however long it takes to complete the surgery. Sacks visits him at home and meets his wife and two children, sees the dents in the refrigerator and on the walls, and comes away with a sense of how astounding the human potential to overcome adversity can be.
The fourth tale, "To See and Not See," is about partially restored sight and how it was not a blessing. This sad story illustrates how sight is learned from infancy and is largely a constructive and interpretive function of the brain. This tale also lets us see how the world of the sightless can be rich and fulfilling beyond our imagination.
In the fifth tale, "The Landscape of His Dreams, we meet a gifted artist, Franco Magnani, who from memory alone recreates his home town of Pontito, Italy through his paintings. He has a nearly photographic, three-dimensional memory, but because of a strange illness that befell him when he was thirty-one, he cares only to re-create his Pontito, not the people or events, but the houses, the masonry, the stones, and he does so continually with microscopic and affecting detail.
The chapter "Prodigies," focuses on an autistic artist, Stephen Wiltshire, whom Sacks is determined to befriend and understand. In this tale, and the concluding tale, "An Anthropologist on Mars," Sacks helps us to penetrate the world of the autistic and see it (at least in my interpretation) as an alternate view of reality, a view with its own strengths and weaknesses, a world that is just as true and valid as the "normal" one. Of course severe autism is debilitating in the extreme, and even modest autism can permanently scar and alienate the autistic from society. Yet, perhaps that is society's loss. I even got the sense, in reading these concluding stories about autism, that perhaps theirs is an evolutionary "strategy" trying to emerge, that is, a different way of seeing and dealing with the world that also might work. I would not be shocked to discover some day that the autistic, with their sometimes extraordinary gifts of memory and concentration, are melded more completely and seamlessly into our usual consciousness, and that humankind is the better for it. Incidentally, the last tale about Temple Grandin, who is a professor of animal studies at Colorado State University, is remarkable because it is about an autistic who is completely integrated into the society, yet remains autistic. She is the one who says she sometimes feels, because of her different perspective, like "an anthropologist on Mars" when she views "normal" people. Sacks allows us to see why.
Bottom line: this is an extraordinary book of insight and scholarship about the human condition, written with grace and a deep sense of humanity, not to be missed.
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Oliver Sacks has always had a knack for deftly explaining the sometimes confusing world of neurology, but "Anthropologist" is a remarkable series of case studies. Dr. Sacks weaves the tales of seven human beings, each having a different neurological "difference" and portraying them in a matter of fact, logical light. Instead of viewing each person as having a disability, Dr. Sacks focuses on the remarkable way they have learned to adapt and make the best out of all situations. What to make of a painter that is colorblind? How can a person with Tourette Syndrome possibly be a surgeon? Why does an autistic teenager seem unable to verbally communicate appropriately, yet shows signs of immense, almost sacred "feelings" in his drawings? All these questions are anwered and mostly with more questions. However, this book differs than most in that it manages to bring a "soulful spirit" to those of which Dr. Sacks writes. A spirit that eludes most human beings.
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on July 2, 2000
Boy, if I had any say in what they should require as reading for students in neuroscience, I would definitely put this book up there right along with any textbooks. This book, as usual for Dr. Sacks, puts a human face on neurological injury or trauma, so that everyone can understand. Unlike many doctors, Dr. Sacks sees not only the diagnositic testing, but the person inside who has to learn to adapt to their disability to survive. Each of these stories are poignant, and as a Deaf person who underwent a cochlear implant which failed, I found his story about the blind man Virgil, who became sighted (somewhat) and then lost his sight again, hitting very close to home. I actually borrowed this book from the library, but I am planning to buy it at first chance because there are so many intelligent quotes in this book, that I have already used in my own writings and plan to use it in teaching students.
Dr. Sacks is one of the most intelligent medical writers we have today, and I for one am profoundly grateful he decided to write books on neurology. I wish that I had been exposed to his books earlier when I was in medical school for neuroscience. These stories about the people make neurology real and made neurological concepts understandable. It is not the research, the neurophysiology, the diagnostic testing which is so important, though they have their place in medical school: it is the fact that the people who have autism or who undergo strokes can teach us so much about ourselves, and many of them have surmounted huge obstacles to make something of their lives. It is all too easy in medical school, and in education to forget this. If you buy only one book on neuroscience this year, this should be the book. It is magnificent. Karen Sadler, Science education, University of Pittsburgh
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on March 15, 1998
Oliver Sacks has a rare gift for sharing his professional interest with readers/listeners and entertaining us as we learn. As the title "An Anthropologist on Mars" implies, his world is filled with oddities of human nature, made to appear more human than odd by Sacks sensitive storytelling.
I first visited the world of Oliver Sacks in 1987 when "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" arrived at the local library. His ability to simplify challenging patient histories made clinical neurology fascinating. With this new volume he returns to familiar territory.
The added bonus of listening to Sacks read his own work is quite intimate. Particularly when he shares the story of Temple Grandin, an autistic professor unable to tolerate human touch but instinctively comforting animals, and sharing her ability with the meat industry, a group not traditionally thought of as sensitive.
While listening to these "Paradoxical Tales", Oliver Sacks transports his audience to a world both unfamiliar and captivating. A place we may not wish to live, but hard to resist visiting.
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on October 8, 1997
The description of clinical cases is not the commonest idea of a 'good time', especially for non-medical population. The usually dry and technically difficult prose plus the obscurity of the subject, provokes, even in accustomed mind of the physician, an unwillingness to proceed past the first 10 pages. I'm happy to say that, as usual, Sacks combines the well honed mind of a academician with the verve of a true stroryteller, and manages to produce a book at once acessible and challenging. The capacity to observe the patient as a different form of human being, instead of as just an 'interesting case', is a true insight into what Medicine should be; furthermore, as the author insistently teaches, neurological diseases differ from other ailments in that they become a true portion of the persona, and ,in a sense, they belong to the patient, whereas most people consider disease to be something that 'happens' to them, an outside influence not to be confused with the true Self. In every way, this book should be required reading for all neurologists - and physicians in general - , but let that not deter you from reading, and enjoying it: it is a truly acessible and moving book, and teaches us all something about the diversity and depths of the human kind.
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on October 11, 2000
Oliver Sacks has the uncanny ability to take the reader into the minds and lives of his patients, and make them real. I've always found the autistic Temple Grandin particularly fascinating. Unable to understand human beings (hence the title, _An Anthropologist on Mars,_) she found she could connect with, and understand, animals. The other stories are equally interesting. An artist loses his color vision. At first he is terribly distaught. Then later he finds he enjoys it. For one, he begins to live at night, with a totally new life. He also finds (as others in his situation have discovered) that his eyesight is radically sharper--he can read a license plate a block away. Another of his patients suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. In his case one advantage is his reflexes become abnormally fast--he can dash in and out of revolving doors (and when he goes on medication he ends up slowed down, which results in some painful collusions.) An intriguing book that everyone should enjoy.
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on January 1, 1999
With the format and style of the earlier "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat", each chapter describing a patient suffering from a particularly unusual and often spectacular neurological disorder, Sacks successfully shows how poor our understanding of the functioning of our own minds really is. More than ever his primary focus is the human aspect of mental affliction, the emotional trauma involved, presumably so he can appeal to a wider audience. I feel that the earlier book actually has the best material and is certainly a better choice if picking one title. Though the cases in "The Anthropologist" are hardly dull, it does seem a little long winded and repetitive in places - is he paid by the page? Perhaps others would disagree, but I would prefer to see more of the clinical speculation and brain-function theorizing. This is my only criticism for what is for the most part provocative and illuminating reading.
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on September 4, 1997
Before he even begins, Sacks tells us where we're going with a quote attributed to William Osler: "Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has."

In each chapter, Dr. Sacks introduces us to another person who happens to have some neurological disoder or difficulty, including autism, colorblindness, regaining of sight after 40 years, and Tourette's syndrome. The chapters are less about the disorders than they are about the people who live with the disorders.

We learn through Sack's accounts that humans are capable of amazing adaption and often can conquer afflictions that one would think inconquerable. The lives of Sacks' "persons who the diseases have" is often lived out far more fully than the reader would imagine. Perhaps our lives, too, can be lived out beyond our perceived limitations.
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on May 21, 2000
I received "An Anthropologist on Mars" as a Christmas gift, and, having never been very interested in psychology, was hesistant to pick it up at first. After reading the first chapter (on an artist who goes color blind), however, I was hooked.
Each of the seven amazing accounts of different neurological disorders kept me more than interested; I found the author's details and descriptions of the his subjects absolutely fascinating. In addition, the separate stories are different enough to provide variety, but are similar enough in the way they are presented and written about to maintain contingency throughout the book.
Again, without knowing a lot about psychology, one can read this book and get a lot out of it. It's really, really interesting (and fun!) stuff, and it gets you to think. Overall, a great book.
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on February 4, 1999
The book describes how seven people with serious disorders live creative and/or happy lives. It is fascinating how they adapt to their mental and physical problems and are satisfied with their lives. Some of the case studies focus on patients who have had problems since early childhood, while others focus on patients who developed the problems late in live. One case study shows how restoring partial eyesight to a patient who had been blind since early childhood completely destroyed his adaptive behavior and did not result in a happier life for him. If I had read a novel in which the characters were modelled after the people in this book, I would have considered the novel a fantasy. This book definitely expanded my understanding of human behavior.
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