A Brain with a Heart

Oliver Sacks has made a literary art of staring into the minds of others. So what does he make of his own?

  1. “To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights entertainment,” ran the epigraph to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’s fourth book and his first best seller—the one that made him famous, in 1985, as a Scheherazade of brain disorder. A sensitive bedside-manner neurologist, he had previously written three books, none of which had attracted much notice at all. The Man Who Mistook would mark the beginning of another career, and a much more public one, as perhaps the unlikeliest ambassador for brain science—a melancholic, savantlike physician disinterested in grand theories and transfixed by those neurological curiosities they failed to explain. Sacks was 52 years old and cripplingly withdrawn, a British alien living a lonely aquatic life on City Island, and for about ten years had been dealing with something like what he’d later call “the Lewis Thomas crisis,” after the physician and biologist who decided, in his fifties, to devote himself to writing essays and poetry.

    “In those days, he was a complete recluse. I mean, there was nobody,” recalls Lawrence Weschler, a friend and essayist who once planned to write a biography of Sacks. “He was in a kind of rictus of shyness.” Sacks was struggling with writer’s block, wrestling with accusations of confabulation as well as the public’s general indifference to his first books, and would spend hours every day swimming in Long Island Sound, near the Throgs Neck Bridge, miles each way and often at night. “I feel I b...

Originally published in New York, November 2012