How Did You Miss? The Mind’s Eye

When you see the tag “How Did You Miss?™ you’ll know I’m talking about a book that should have, but for intervening circumstances, eluded your attention. If you don’t know the name Oliver Sacks, would it help if I added his credentials – M.D.? No. What if I mentioned his last book, Musicophilia? Still nothing? OK. Robin Williams played him in the movie Awakenings. Got it now? So how did you miss The Mind’s Eye?

The Mind's EyeHere’s a key excerpt from his biography posted on his websiteSacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s rather puzzling to me, and perhaps a reflection on a local economy that’s just now waking from a long nap, but I had thought that his latest book would quickly become a title much in demand here. Coming out during the Christmas shopping season can boost sales, but it can also cause a book to get lost in the clutter of hundreds of great books aimed at the same group of readers. Sacks has always been a favorite here at Destinations Booksellers. His last book, Musicophilia, just missed making our annual bestseller list – and that was in hardcover.

Yet, it has barely been touched. I think you’ll want to read this, so it gets top billing in our first How Did You Miss?™

In this latest collection of actual cases, Sacks tells the stories of a diverse group of people who experience “bizarre and disconcerting” effects related to their vision. It grabbed me right from the preface, where the doctor presents a defense against a colleague who presumed that Sacks reads up on a syndrome and then seeks out actual cases. But as a practicing neurologist, Sacks says his cases invariably start with “an encounter, a letter, a knock on the door.” From that starting point, he then researches the literature that matches the symptoms.

Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks, with a friend

This time, in addition to telling the stories of others, Sacks is able to become a subject, himself. In the fall of 2005, while in a movie theater, he noticed a visual blockage in his right eye, occluding the left quadrant of his vision. In short order, doctors discovered a tumor in his eye. Through the coming months he experienced truly bizarre compensatory behaviors in the way his brain perceived what he saw. For example, with his right-eye vision impaired, his brain began to “paint in” what it thought ought to be there. By 2007, and effectively to this day, Dr. Sacks endures hallucinations – visual apparitions where colors, shapes, and patterns appear that simply aren’t there.

I’ve had these myself, though they weren’t persistent. Once, when visiting my parents’ home, I noticed that the neighbors had replaced their old satellite dish, which was white, with an all-black one. Now this wasn’t your modern dish. This one could have doubled as a wading pool and it was at least 7 feet in diameter, emplaced no more than 50 feet from my vantage point. I asked when that happened, getting blank stares from my folks. Explaining, I said “they used to have than monstrosity of a white fiberglass dish and now they’ve replaced it with that black mesh one.” No, they hadn’t, said my mother. Yes, I insisted, which is when they began to worry that I might be having a stroke. Suddenly, the image snapped back to reality and, of course, the “old” dish was still there. To me, though, it was indeed a black mesh satellite dish, at least for five minutes.

Here’s an excerpt from his own story in the book, “Persistence of Vision”: … often in the evening, when the sights and sounds of the day lessen, I may become suddenly aware of these faint hallucinations. And often it is a visual emptiness – a ceiling, a white washbasin, the sky – which makes me conscious of the visual patterns and images continually chasing across my visual field. Yet these little hallucinations are interesting, in a way; they show me the background activity, the idling, of my visual system, generating and transforming patterns, never at rest.” Sounds familiar to me.

Here’s an Easter Egg for reading this far. You think you know your zodiac sign, eh?

One thing revealed this past year in interviews and in the book is Sacks’ face-blindness – his inability to recognize faces – which has plagued him since childhood. Once, when he submitted an article to The New Yorker, the editor asked him to describe the celebrity subject: “… what does he look like?” Sacks demurred, saying it wasn’t about what he looked like. It was about his work. When the editor insisted, Sacks said “I will have to ask [his collaborator],” yielding a puzzled look from his editor.

Included are the stories of:

Lilian, a concert pianist who becomes unable to “read” music. She can recognize the symbols, but not the composition.

Sue, a neurobiologist who could never see in three dimensions until she reached her fifties.

Pat, who has aphasia and cannot utter a sentence, but who has made herself a vital part of her community.

Howard, a novelist who loses the ability to read – every letter looks vaguely like Cyrillic, Arabic, or Chinese.

Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Charles Scribner, Jr., who published Hemingway, among others, lost the ability to read (visual alexia) in his sixties. A man who eschewed audiobooks, he turned to books on tape in order to continue his enjoyment of reading.

Let me recommend this one strongly. At only 240 pages, some of you could devour it in an afternoon. I found it as endlessly fascinating as the best novel. Don’t miss this one.

As you can see from the cover art in this post, there is an intentional blurring to the book jacket. It could be perceived as “O Liver Sacks, something, something, something,” and maybe that’s why it has remained such a lonely book, despite being one of the first books you would see when you enter our store. And frankly, you have to remember who Oliver Sacks is to discover it or to seek it out. Maybe now you will remember it.

The Mind’s Eye
by Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Publishing (2010)
9780307272089 ($26.95)

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Don’t forget our next event, a Southern Indiana book launch for Lori Leroy, debuting her clever new book about families battling infertility. It’s “Inadequate Conception: From Barry White to Blastocytes – What Your Mom Never Told You About Getting Pregnant. Join us on Saturday, Jan. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. It ought to be grand. Lori will discuss the book, how she came to write it, and will autograph copies after taking questions beginning at 2 p.m.

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RE: The Caldecott Medal winners

The wife and husband team of Erin and Philip Stead are “stead”y bloggers, too, and you might want to check them out. Both are illustrators, but Philip wrote the story on this one, while Erin technically earned the prize, which is granted to the year’s best illustrator of children’s literature. Philip just posted a wonderful collection of what he calls the Steadbery and Phildecott winners, lovingly praising his “competition” in the field. You can read Erin’s postings here, and Philip’s here.

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Filed under Book Alert, Book Review, Event

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