The ten essays Oliver Sacks gathered for this volume shortly before his death might at first seem like a miscellany, the meanderings of an inexhaustibly curious man, interested in everything. But The River of Consciousness (Knopf, $27.95), covering such classic Sacks themes as perception and misperception, memory, time, creativity, and how the abnormal illuminates normality, is a remarkably tight and focused collection. In making this coherence out of many disparate fields—biology, history, biography, medicine, photography—the book mirrors the title essay’s discussion of William James’ theories that the seemingly continuous state of consciousness is composed of innumerable discrete moments. James, one of Sacks’ heroes, returns throughout this book, as do Darwin and Freud. Like Sacks, these thinkers embodied an admirable “spaciousness of mind,” and Sacks profiles not their celebrated achievements but their lesser-known accomplishments in areas outside their specialties. He lays out Freud’s early work in neurology and Darwin’s late work in botany, a field that was mostly descriptive before Darwin’s six books and seventy-plus papers transformed it into an evolutionary science. Sacks also picks up threads from his own prodigious writing, revisiting many of his earlier books to add new information, revise conclusions, and, most of all, to ask more questions.
When Dittrich’s grandfather, the pioneering psychosurgeon William Beecher Scoville, performed the lobotomy that failed to cure Henry Molaison’s epilepsy and left him a severe amnesiac, he created one of the best research subjects medical science has ever had. Studied for the rest of his life and after, Henry’s broken brain illuminated the workings of memory, cognition and much else. The knowledge came at a steep ethical cost; not only was Henry’s physical and emotional well-being overlooked in the greater interests of science, but neither Molaison nor his family were ever compensated for the hundreds of studies Henry participated in—indeed, studies that he made possible. Most patients who underwent lobotomies, however, were women, and when the procedure made them “docile,” it was viewed as a success. Scoville “cured” his own mentally ill wife this way. Dittrich’s compassionate account of Henry’s travails and those of other patients/victims/sacrifices—“material” in the reports—highlights the ultimately unreliable results gained by experimentation that sought to understand the human mind, yet did so by excluding humanity from its methodology. This is a heartbreaking, powerful, gruesome, and riveting book.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstandter is an 800 page monument to Godel, Escher, and Bach traces the parallels in their accomplishments in math, art, and music, respectively- but it's really a celebration of the unlimited potential of the human mind. Hofstadter examines a body of shared philosophical and aesthetic concepts with literally awesome depth, cleverness, and deftness. Describing this work's brilliance in so many words is beyond me. Nevertheless, this book reads so easily and clearly, with such playfulness, that it can be read in small bursts and large swaths both