on August 31st, 2015 No Comments
The news this weekend of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks’ death brought back a crystalline memory of myself at 18, searching through the library stacks for a copy of his 1973 book, Awakenings. I needed it because the brains did not show up.
An explanation is in order: The spring semester of my college-freshman biology class included a six-week lab elective. Of a few dozen elective options, I picked “The Brain” because the descriptive blurb said each student would get to dissect a sheep brain. I was a bit grossed out by the idea of a sheep brain in front of me on a tray, but my curiosity outweighed my squeamishness. I intensely wanted to examine a real brain.
However, on the first day of The Brain, our teaching assistant broke the bad news: No brains. The room moaned in dismay.
“I know,” he said. “I’m really sorry. To make it up to you, I’m going to let you each do a short report on anything you want, as long as it has some relationship to the brain.”
I had seen the movie version of Awakenings a few years earlier (with Robin Williams playing Sacks) and remembered my mom saying that there was a book, too, but that she had heard it was clinical and dull. Well, I thought, clinical isn’t so bad, and I can stomach dull if it lets me present a book report about a weird brain disease. The TA approved my topic, and off I went to the university’s biomedical library, where the long, dim, badly ventilated staircases gave me attacks of claustrophobia.
Up the dreaded stairs, through the overheated, papery-smelling stacks to the book itself: A library edition, small and lightweight in my hands, bound in an ugly turquoise cover. A book that, once I opened it, I could not put down. Yes, the writing was clinical – there were medical words, and patients were disguised behind names like “Miriam H.” – but dull? No. An adventure in the brain: patients who had been frozen for decades with post-encephalitic parkinsonian syndrome coming to life again when Sacks gave them a drug, only to slowly sink back into their freeze as the drug stopped working for them.
The main thing I remember thinking is: Eeeeeeee! I want to write stories like this! It did not seem like a dream that had any hope of being realized, since I had no intention of becoming a neurologist. I let the impulse go, prepared my Brain report (a success), and subsequently read many more of Sacks’ books – with great pleasure.