When I was young, probably a freshman in high school, I happened to pick up a magazine sitting around the house and started reading an article about a doctor who had worked with patients suffering from sleeping sickness. He had used a drug called L-DOPA, considered a radical treatment at the time, to very good effect.
I graduated college years later with an English degree, and began a career working in restaurants. I spent about ten years as a cook and kitchen manager before I took my first job in a library. One day I happened to see a book with a most curious title: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It was written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and told of a number of remarkable, even mind-boggling mental conditions he had diagnosed and treated. I soon found that he had also written the book Awakenings, which told the longer story of his work using L-DOPA on sleeping sickness. Realizing this was the basis of the article I had read years before, I backtracked and read that book too. It was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro, with Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.
As an English major, I had read almost exclusively fiction in college. I had always read fiction. But Dr. Sacks’ books were so interesting and so compelling that I continued to read them. I read his Musicophilia and The Mind’s Eye. The last book of his I read was Hallucinations, in which, among other things, he described his own avid use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. He is one of the handful of authors responsible for the fact that to this day I read as much non-fiction as fiction. I number people like David McCullough and Mark Kurlansky on that short list.
Most recently I heard an interview with Dr. Sacks on NPR, in which he talked about some of the difficulties he had experienced in life due to his homosexuality—something I hadn’t known about him, and which he spoke of with humor and pathos. Today I heard the news that Oliver Sacks has died at age 82. He was a brilliant, complex person, a compassionate doctor, and a wonderful author. If you have not read any of his books, you are missing a truly great reading experience.