Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Posted by nliakos on March 15, 2008

by Oliver Sacks (Vintage 2001)

Oliver Sacks has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read Awakenings, and Uncle Tungsten has been on my “to read” list since it came out. Sacks narrates the story of his formative years in London, surrounded by music and science. He was fascinated by chemistry until the age of 14, and his parents (both doctors) and uncles (a chemist and a physicist) fed this fascination, allowing him the freedom to try the most amazing experiments in his home laboratory. The book is a combination of a boyhood memoir and a history of chemistry. Sacks is unflinchingly honest in his depictions of his boyhood self and his family. In some ways, he seems to have been as strange as the patients he describes in some of his other books; he was obsessed with the elements, the Periodic Table, and the chemists whose discoveries he describes.

At the age of 14, Sacks’ parents ended his dreams of becoming a chemist, dismissing them as so much childishness; they had already decided that he would become a doctor, which he dutifully did. He remarks, interestingly, that school killed his love of the subject: “Now, at school, I was forced to sit in classes, to take notes and exams, to use textbooks that were flat, impersonal, deadly. What had been fun, delight, when I did it my own way became an aversion, an ordeal, when I had to do it to order. What had been a holy subject for me, full of poetry, was being rendered prosaic, profane.” (p. 314) What an eloquent condemnation of formal education!

Writing the book served to reawaken his old love of chemistry, and in the process he manages to fascinate his readers as well.

One Response to “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”

  1. […] about the man himself–in spite of reading the personal narratives A Leg to Stand On and Uncle Tungsten, so this book filled in a lot of gaps for me. I was totally surprised to learn that Sacks was a […]

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