by Oliver Sacks (Knopf, 2010)
Oliver Sacks doesn’t disappoint. I love his writing and try to read all his books, but somehow, I missed this one three years ago.
Most of the seven pieces that make up this book deal with vision in some way, such as what can go wrong with it (suddenly losing the ability to read, for example, or being unable to recognize faces) and how our brains react to its loss. “Sight Reading” is about on alexia (inability to read) and alexia sine agraphia (inability to read without a corresponding inability to write). This can happen suddenly or gradually. The piece focuses on Lilian Kallir, a 67-year-old pianist who lost not only her ability to read books but also her ability to read music. Still, she managed to continue to teach at a music college and was able to learn and perform music from memory.
“Recalled to Life” recounts the story of a woman who suffered a hemorrhage in the brain which resulted in a loss of speech (aphasia). Although she did not regain her speech, Patricia H. learned to compensate for its loss in a variety of ways, eventually leading a full and joyful life after her hemorrhage.
“A Man of Letters” is about alexia; it describes how Howard Engel, creator of the detective Benny Cooperman, managed to resume his writing career despite his complete inability to read anything.
“Face-Blind,” perhaps my favorite piece in the book, is about prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces)and its frequently co-morbid condition, topographical agnosia (inability to get around without getting lost). Oliver Sacks himself suffers from these conditions, so his descriptions are particularly empathetic. He tells several funny anecdotes about his problems with faces and places. The ability to distinguish faces and recognize places are apparently governed by a part of the brain called the “fusiform gyrus” (or the “fusiform face area”). This essay is full of interesting factoids, such as why all Asians (or Africans, or white people…) look alike to someone from a different culture (by three months, human infants are already narrowing their idea of faces to those they see most often, which raises the question: if American babies are exposed from birth to all kinds of faces, will they be able to differentiate the faces of all kinds of people when they grow up?).
“Stereo Sue” deals with stereopsis, or stereo vision. This is something I had always assumed one has, or doesn’t have, but I learned that some people (Sacks among them) have an unusually intense form of stereoscopy; that is, they perceive the world more clearly as being three-dimensional than do the rest of us. Other people, because of eye problems or the loss of sight in one eye, lack this ability to see in three dimensions; to them, the world seems flat. We read about the case of Sue Barry, a neurologist, who spent the first 40 years of her life without the benefit of stereo vision but was able to develop it in her late forties, thanks to vision therapy. She found her life changed by her new ability.
In “Stereo Sue,” Sacks describes his own acute stereo vision and his lifelong interest in stereoscopy. (He actually belongs to the new York Stereoscopic Society! Who knew there was such a thing?) So the reader can feel his dismay when in “Persistence of Vision,” he describes a frightening brush with a melanoma in the eye which ultimately robs him of binocular vision. Much of this piece consists of the diary that he kept during the period of his diagnosis, treatment, and (partial) recovery. As with his earlier book, A Leg to Stand On, his frank treatment of his own experience makes very compelling reading.
The final essay, “The Mind’s Eye,” deals with blindness and how people respond to their loss of sight. Sacks tells how the brain sometimes responds to the loss of external visual stimuli by ramping up the internal ones. Some blind people develop the ability to function almost as if they were sighted, relying on their other senses to navigate through the world with confidence. He tells about one blind man who fixed his roof by himself, another who fought in the French Resistance, another who learned to play sports and chess by using clicking noises, like a dolphin.
While some parts of the book were a bit too technical for me to understand completely, I found it a fascinating read.