Thursday, September 2, 2010


Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks

Interesting Fact that I Didn't Know until I Read the Wikipedia Entry Just Now: Sacks's middle name is Wolf. Also a lot of scientists don't like him. To some, he is a better writer than scientist, one critic remarking on Sacks's "idiosyncratic and anecdotal approach."

Another interesting fact: you can't download an image of the book cover that won't have that "Look inside" link attached to it.

Oliver Sacks, as you probably know, is the real-life hero of the movie Awakenings (starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), based on his book of the same name, about a neurologist who treats people suffering from a 1920s sleeping sickness. His actual work in that field has been criticized for not being scientifically thorough, the studies not double-blind, and what-have-you. Still and all, Awakenings is a pretty bloody terrific story, and there are some awfully good stories in Musicophilia as well.

There’s an amazing tale of a musician who almost completely loses his memory. Not just past memories, but any memory at all, say of what was at the beginning of a sentence just uttered. Can you imagine how debilitating?! For some reason, he was able always to recognize his wife when she visited him and was overjoyed to see her, and was also able to play and conduct music.

If you’re very into music, especially classical, you will find most of this book riveting. I did not realize, for instance, that the way one’s brain processes music is broken down into different aspects of it. Sacks and other scientists know this through people whose brains have been damaged. One person might lose the ability to distinguish pitch, another any sense of rhythm.

Another fascinating thing is how music can help heal people with brain injuries. In particular, Sacks’s final chapter on Alzheimer’s patients is profoundly moving. His assertion that even advanced Alzheimer’s patients still possess their souls—and that it becomes evident when you play music to them—really resonated with me. (My mother-in-law is an Alzheimer’s patient.)

It’s always annoying to me reading books with copious footnotes, and this book was no exception. Anybody else have this issue? I try to ignore the footnote numbers in the body of the text, but as a compulsive reader, I can’t just turn the page and continue the flow of a narrative and leave footnotes on the page unread. I prefer endnotes—then if I really want to have something elaborated on, I can turn to the back and read it. But that’s annoying too…

Now I’m reading a book with no footnotes—David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed In Flames. I just started it this morning on the subway, and Sedaris is proving to be awfully good company.


solarity said...

Obviously I must read this.

I like footnotes, but "copious" footnotes tend to sprawl every where, so that the lengthy sentence you're reading has notes on one page and also the next. If there are endnotes, I can just use two bookmarks. Although it gets boring flipping back and forth for lists of "Ibid." and "Foster, op cit."

Mary Anne in Kentucky

Sbanfnyc said...

Well, Well, well. Welcome back again. I want you to know how much I like your posts and I guess I will have to read the Alzheimer's chapter. It is still on my bedside. I fresist the issue cause it cuses me such pain but I guess I have to face it.