Conversations with Books

SacksOliver Sacks drifted on and off my reading list over the years: a particular topic didn’t call me or I was reading something else or I forgot. Mostly, I forgot.

Along with forgetting, I can’t remember why I particularly searched for him in the library’s catalog and requested this particular book. Maybe the word “vintage” called.

I picked it up from the library the same day he died. Not that I knew he’d died, I learned that the next day after I’d filled three Post-Its in response to something he’d written and had tabs elsewhere to mark passages in my conversation with the book.

This particular book is a compilation from six of his other books and reading the pieces lets me know where to go next with Mr. Sacks.

Physics was the science that fascinated me as soon as I learned about it. Perhaps that fascination grew from my penchant for asking why. Mother said it was the first word I learned. That may be an overstatement but she also said I used it often and that was no overstatement. Why do I have to……..? became a pretty constant litany. But I also asked why the sparks from a sparkler didn’t burn and the sparks from a firecracker did. Mom didn’t know. Why does this egg have that gummy white glob and this one doesn’t? One is fertilized and one isn’t, she’d say. Why does th sometimes sound like thuuuu and sometimes like f or u? She’d point out the letters around the offending th and its location in the word.

Sacks wrote: She never lost her love of, her feelings for, the physical sciences, nor the desire to go beneath the surface of things, to explain.

Sacks mother a physician, mine a reader and a writer. Mother never lost her love of words and read voraciously. In her last years, she missed reading as her macular degeneration progressed. Books on tape readers were rarely satisfactory. One mispronounced word and the recorder went off.

She was born three years before Sacks.

All these things–Sacks wrote of his childhood experiments –the rubbed amber, the magnets, the crystal radio, the clock dials with their tireless coruscations–gave me a sense of invisible rays and forces, a sense that beneath the familiar, visible world of colors and appearances there lay a dark, hidden world of mysterious laws and phenomena.

A sparkler is mysterious.

Coruscate: a verb, 1. To give forth flashes of light; sparkle and glitter: diamonds coruscating in the candlelight; 2. To exhibit sparkling virtuosity.

Sacks writing does that.

It is Dr. Sack’s gift that he has found a way to enlarge our experience and understanding of what the human is–The Wall Street Journal

Dubbed “the poet laureate of medicine” by the New York Times.

The above quotes are from the back cover. I expect that’s the primary and underlying reason I’ve liked reading Sacks. He chooses his words like a poet and he opens my mind and pours new stuff in.

In my third semester, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, at St. John’s College where I studied for a Masters, I read Goethe’s Botanical Writings and Faust. He was a poet and a scientist. The lab experiments in Atomic Theory were the closest I’d come to pure magic; I could do the logical steps successfully, but it was still magic. The Periodic Table fascinated me; keeping it in my head proved fruitless. My tutor, also oddly enough, named Mr. Sacks thought I might like The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. …to see again the earth, air, and water from which I was separated by a gulf that grew larger every day; and to find again my chemical trade in its essential and primordial form…. Readings on Lucretius enchanted me: A half can always be in halves divided/No limit to all this. So how would they differ/The universe from the littlest thing?

In discovering Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson, I discovered a poet who completely turned my head around in thinking about nuclear energy .

Sacks, with his brothers, set off explosions and flashing elements, studied and wondered at the various colors those elements and atoms produced. Primordial fire, the colors from the burning logs at Christmastime, colors rising and falling in the flames–greens, blues, the deep red of coals changing in a moment’s notice to sparkling yellow sparks rising up the chimney.


I have a new word.

6 thoughts on “Conversations with Books

  1. The only thing I remember reading by Oliver Sacks is his op-ed piece in the New York Times to announce that he was dying. I think that “coruscations” could even apply to his words on that occasion. Wonderful human being. Thanks for sharing your connections with him.

    1. You’re very welcome. He’s a pleasure to read. Right now, I have Joan Didion, Primo Lev-, and Sacks going. But I think Oliver Sacks is leading the pack. Perhaps because he’s so new to my life and Didion and Levi are much-read-worth-reading-again books. But then, every time I read something that teaches me in beautiful language, I’m hooked. Or re-hooked. Isn’t “coruscations” a fabulous word? Hard to slip it into casual conversation but maybe I can find another place to use it!

  2. Lovely post, Janet. I’m reading Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move, and feel as if I’ve lost a dear friend. He was an inspiration…so curious and such a writer! I too share your interest in science. I had thought of medicine as a profession, but turned to literature and teaching. I too remember being enchanted with and amazed by the periodic table. It was poetry.

    1. I imagine I’ll get to On the Move eventually. Curious. That’s a great word for him. I suppose, since I began writing young and never stopped, writing is what I do, but science certainly calls. I was thinking just today, although didn’t put it in the essay but it may be an essay I write and write again (I seem to try out material on the blog), that one of the reasons I so like Physics is the idea of nature and natural phenomena. Growing up on a farm, we were surrounded by natural phenomena and since we lived on a hill, we could see storms and lightening coming from any direction. One of my all time strong memories is Dad standing at the west yard fence and watching the sky as a storm built.

  3. Janet, like you I’ve always intended to read Oliver Sacks. I’ve read many articles that have referenced his work but never the work itself. Time I did something about that. Coruscations is a new word for me, too. I like the way it rolls around my mouth when I say it aloud.

    1. It does roll around, that word, doesn’t it. This book I’m reading, Vintage Sacks, might be a good place to start. I needed to know something about him before I could choose. But I expect he will remain, in one book or another, on my reading list for a good while!

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