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The Mind's Eyeby Oliver Sacks
Synopses & Reviews
In January of 1999, I received the following letter:
Dear Dr. Sacks,
My (very unusual) problem, in one sentence, and in non-medical terms, is: I can't read. I can't read music, or anything else. In the ophthalmologist's office, I can read the individual letters on the eye chart down to the last line. But I cannot read words, and music gives me the same problem. I have struggled with this for years, have been to the best doctors, and no one has been able to help. I would be ever so happy and grateful if you could find the time to see me.
I phoned Mrs. Kallir-this seemed to be the thing to do, although I normally would have written back-because although she apparently had no difficulty writing a letter, she had said that she could not read at all. I spoke to her and arranged to see her at the neurology clinic where I worked.
Mrs. Kallir came to the clinic soon afterward-a cultivated, vivacious sixty-seven-year-old woman with a strong Prague accent-and related her story to me in much more detail. She was a pianist, she said; indeed, I knew her by name, as a brilliant interpreter of Chopin and Mozart (she had given her first public concert at the age of four, and Gary Graffman, the celebrated pianist, called her one of the most naturally musical people I've ever known).
The first intimation of anything wrong, she said, had come during a concert in 1991. She was performing Mozart piano concertos, and there was a last-minute change in the program, from the Nineteenth Piano Concerto to the Twenty-first. But when she flipped open the score of the Twenty-first, she found it, to her bewilderment, completely unintelligible. Although she saw the staves, the lines, the individual notes sharp and clear, none of it seemed to hang together, to make sense. She thought the difficulty must have something to do with her eyes. But she went on to perform the concerto flawlessly from memory, and dismissed the strange incident as one of those things.
Several months later, the problem recurred, and her ability to read musical scores began to fluctuate. If she was tired or ill, she could hardly read them at all, though when she was fresh, her sight-reading was as swift and easy as ever. But in general the problem worsened, and though she continued to teach, to record, and to give concerts around the world, she depended increasingly on her musical memory and her extensive repertoire, since it was now becoming impossible for her to learn new music by sight. I used to be a fantastic sight reader, she said, easily able to play a Mozart concerto by sight, and now I can't.
Occasionally at concerts she experienced lapses of memory, though Lilian (as she asked me to call her) was adept at improvising and could usually cover these. When she was at ease, with friends or students, her playing seemed as good as ever. So, through inertia, or fear, or a sort of adjustment, it was possible for her to overlook her peculiar problems in reading music, for she had no other visual problems, and her memory and ingenuity still allowed her a full musical life.
In 1994, three years or so after she had first noticed problems reading music, Lilian started to have problems with reading words. Here again, there were good days and bad, and even times when her ability to read seemed to change from moment to moment: a sentence would
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the
Traces the stories of six individuals whose lives have been profoundly changed by unusual changes to essential senses and abilities, including a renowned pianist who lost the ability to read scores and a novelist whose ability to read was destroyed by a stroke.
“An absorbing attempt to unravel the complexities of the human mind.” –Kirkus
“A master storyteller with a very engaging style…as a professional who is also a patient, Sacks] has a unique ability to explain to people what the basic problem is and what the physical effects are…he allows all of us to share this and perhaps take some understanding away with us.” –gulfnews.com
“Sacks has a seemingly inexhaustible talent for eloquently and humanely explaining our brains’ most arcane and bizarre neurological dysfunctions.” –Time Magazine
“A new book by Oliver Sacks is always cause for rejoicing.” –Christianity Today
“Sacks knows how to go from ‘aw, what an inspirational story,’ to ‘oooh what an interesting disease,’ from one page to the next, making this a medical page-turner you won’t want to miss.” –Inside Beat
“Engrossing and bizarre.” –Elle
“Richly detailed…creatively balances complex medical discussion with solid, down-to-earth prose, which will attract his legion of fans interested in the human condition.” –Library Journal
“Breathtaking…Sacks will draw you into a fascinating mental landscape that will leave you in awe of its strange, often spiritual and exquisite pathways.” –Bookpage
“Just as Sacks] is forced to see the world in a new way, readers are invited to do the same.” –Time Out New York
“Sacks’ writing manages to be at once lively and crystalline.” –Time
“Inquisitive and horrified at once, Sacks shows us knowledge, discipline, and imagination confronting the terrors of illness and loss…Readers may never take the view of a sunrise or of their child’s smile the same way again.” –Boston Globe
“Frank and moving…His books resonate because they reveal as much about the force of character as they do about neurology.” –Nature
“Poignant.” –Barnes and Noble review
“Sparkling…brilliant.” –The VisionHelp Blog
“Heartbreaking and hilarious.” –Time
“Elegant…Sacks musters up the same degree of courage and resilience that he admires in his patients.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Sacks is fascinating, and the breadth of knowledge he brings to his case histories is impressive.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Offers genuine inspiration and hope for the everyday aging brains we all possess…Sacks is a mapmaker guiding us deep into the mysteries of the brain.” –New York Journal of Books
“The Mind’s Eye should become required reading in all medical schools.” –Wicked Local Cambridge
“ Sacks] entertains and diverts with his dramatic tales…deeply empathetic.” –The New York Times Book Revie
About the Author
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the author of ten books, including Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which inspired the Oscar-nominated film). He lives in New York City, where he is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and Columbia’s first Columbia University Artist.
Table of Contents
Sight reading — Recalled to life — A man of letters — Face-blind — Stereo Sue — Persistence of vision: a journal — The mind's eye.
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Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Anatomy and Physiology