20 Questions: Oliver Sacks

Anyone who has read Oliver Sacks — his numerous books and/or his prolific output of engaging essays on neurology published in The New Yorker — understands that he is a rare man of patience and grace. Sacks possesses a tireless intellect, a perpetual curiosity, and a compassionate understanding of humans. The very fundamentals of who we are as individuals and as a species are explored in his fascinating, tenderly rendered ‘autopsies’, if you will.

In his recent book, The Mind’s Eye (October 2010) this neurologist, philosopher, and hardcore Trekkie explores — with others and through his own experience — the physical and perceptual disconnect between what we see and what we perceive. Forgive PopMatters for gushing, but what a kick, having Sacks with us here in 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Movies and books do not generally make me cry; music does, if it is exquisitely beautiful — like Mozart violin concertos.

2. The fictional character most like you?

When I was young, I thought I would like to be like Professor Challenger, in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I suppose I turned out to be an explorer, in a different sort of way.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I have never seen Star Wars, but I have been a devoted Trekkie since the original series. No one has ever commented on it, but when I wrote A Leg to Stand On, about being a patient in hospital after breaking a leg on a Norwegian mountainside, I called one of the nurses “Nurse Sulu”. I often refer to Star Trek in my books, actually.

In the early-’90s, I visited the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I met Brent Spiner (who played Data), and told him that he was the hero of many autistic people. And I see Patrick Stewart occasionally. He played a wonderful, exotic Prospero in The Tempest a few years ago.

5. Your ideal brain food?

It has been said that fish is brain food, and I love fish, especially herring. The best is the fresh New Catch from Holland that comes in the late spring. The Dutch celebrate this occasion with herring festivals, and my friends at Russ and Daughters throw a big party in New York with dozens of different herrings: herrings in mustard sauce, herrings in curry sauce, schmaltz herring, chopped herring, Swedish matjes, rollmops, pickled herring, smoked herring—accompanied by aquavit and other spirits.

A few years ago, a Dutch lady, at the age of 114, attributed her longevity to eating pickled herring every day.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

As I was working with my Awakenings patients in the late-’60s, they encouraged me to tell their stories, and to document them in other ways, too. It was not common in those days to film patients, but I scraped up enough money to buy a super-8 camera, and later a video camera (it was a Sony Portapak, so-called, which must have weighed 20 pounds) to film these patients before and after they began taking L-dopa for their parkinsonism. I worried, and they worried, that what I described in my book would sound outlandish, unbelievable, and we wanted to be able to show what it was really like.

Much of this footage was later incorporated into a British television documentary and reconstructed for the Hollywood film. But I think it is important to document the real patients, in their own words and actions. They felt very much that this film, like the book, was their testament.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

Not as a miracle worker, because I have no miracles. But I hope I will be remembered, by my patients, as a physician who paid attention, who listened, who tried to imagine what their lives were like.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

I think of A. R. Luria, the great Soviet neuropsychologist, as my mentor. We never met in person, but we corresponded towards the end of his life, and he encouraged me to always pay attention to the full biography, the full narrative, of an individual’s life.

His monumental textbooks are still very relevant today, but it was his two “neurological novels,” The Man with a Shattered World and The Mind of a Mnemonist, that most influenced me.

I read the first 60 pages of The Mind of a Mnemonist thinking it was fiction—it was so moving, so dramatic. Luria believed in what he called “romantic science”, a science that is no less rigorous or true for being detailed and descriptive, like Freud’s case histories, or great describers of 19th century natural history like Humboldt, Darwin, or Wallace.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I cannot draw for toffee, as we used to say, but I like to doodle, and my specialty is drawing cuttlefish, or the zigzagging “fortification spectra” of the sort one sees in a visual migraine.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

After I published my first book, Migraine, in 1970, a medical textbook editor asked me what subject I wanted to write about next. Parkinson’s disease, I said. “Great,” he replied, “you’ve got the formula now, just do it exactly as you did Migraine.”

I think this was the worst piece of advice I ever got, so it was one I did not follow. For better or for worse, I cannot write to a plan or a formula; each book takes its own shape, and I usually don’t know what that will be until the book is nearly finished.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

When I was at university, I won a scholarship award of ₤50. It was quite a lot of money in those days, and the first lump sum I had ever had.

I went straight to Blackwell’s, the bookstore, to buy a second-hand copy of the OED in twelve volumes. It was tattered and battered, but I had had my eye on it for months, and it is still my favorite bedtime reading, though I need to make enlarged copies of its pages now, since the print is so tiny.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levi’s or…?

I prefer soft khaki trousers and a t-shirt—ideally one with a pocket, for pens. I have a collection of t-shirts from botanical gardens all over the world, and one of Periodic Table t-shirts, as well.

But my favorite pieces of clothing are the socks I had made for me by Kathleen Day (we call her “the Sock Lady”). Kathleen has a collection of automatic knitting machines such as my mother used to use—I described this in my memoir, Uncle Tungsten. After reading that, Kathleen sent me a gorgeous pair of hand-cranked orange woolen socks, and since then I’ve acquired several more pairs, so that now I have a different color for each day of the week.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

If I could choose anyone, living or dead, it would be Charles Darwin—he is a sort of hero, and such a wonderful describer. But like me, he mostly stayed close to home, so perhaps we would order in sushi, instead.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

I would go back 300 million years or so, for I have always longed to see the earth in its Carboniferous age, long before mammals evolved, or even flowering plants. The planet was the domain of gymnosperms, non-flowering plants, then. There were ferns and tree ferns, and giant Calamites–segmented relatives of today’s horsetails, ten- or 20-meters high. There were huge Lepidodendron, a meter and a half in diameter, related to today’s tiny club mosses. And there were cycads, very similar to those that survive today.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I do my best thinking in the water, whether it’s a hot bath, a swimming pool, or a lake. I’m clumsy on land, but in the water, I feel as graceful as a porpoise, and I need to swim every day.

I don’t have much interest in vacations generally, but I spend a week in Curacao each winter with a group of swimmers and bikers.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Dark chocolate, hot chocolate, tea, smoked salmon, herring, Bach and Mozart—not necessarily in that order.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I arrived in New York City in 1965, planning a short stay, but somehow that short stay has turned into nearly 50 years. I like the bustle of the city outside my window, though I wish I could swim in my favorite Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks every day.

But otherwise, I am relatively indifferent to my surroundings, as long as I have my books and papers and a steady supply of hot tea nearby.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I’m rather apolitical, and for that matter, I’m not sure which is my country. I was born in England, but have not lived there for half a century; on the other hand, I never got ’round to becoming an American citizen, so I am a “resident alien”. But I am a friendly alien.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

My backstroke, and a book about nonpsychotic hallucinations.

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