Music Hath Charms

Oliver Sacks is going blind. And he’s writing a book about music. If you don’t know him, you might want to.

As a writer, Sack’s work and method is a model to aspire to. His is one of those rare scientific minds that does not dissect the life out of his subject. His soul shares in the sufferings of his patients and takes every loss as a path to knowledge. The following excerpts are from a Seed Magazine piece about him called “The Listener”.

Sacks has used the broken brain as a point of entry into the mind, so that readers learn about the perception of colors from a color-blind painter, or about the structure of memory from a man who has none. But the real lesson of Sacks’s work goes far beyond the confines of scientific knowledge. His case histories are essays in empathy, sincere attempts to enter into the experience of someone else, to know the individual and not just the disease. Sacks wants the kind of knowledge that can be known only through love, through listening.

…Sacks’s latest book is Musicophilia, an exploration of the musical mind. As in his previous works, such as An Anthropologist on Mars, or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a series of ordinary people transformed by their extraordinary neurological conditions. He writes, for instance, of Tony Cicoria, who, after being struck by lightning, suddenly developed an insatiable obsession with Chopin’s piano music. Before the accident, Tony had been a respected surgeon, with little interest in classical music. But now he insisted on spending all of his spare time practicing the piano. He even began composing his own pieces, “giving form to the music continually running in his head.”

Sacks also describes the case of Martin, who developed uncanny musical talents after contracting meningitis as a child. While the affliction impaired many aspects of Martin’s mind, it left him with a limitless auditory memory. And then there’s Mrs. C., who was besieged by musical hallucinations after becoming deaf. She couldn’t stop hearing Christmas carols.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Hi Fred – thanks for sharing this article – fascinating stuff! I’ve bookmarked this e-zine for further reference as well. Stay well.
    hugs from PA

  2. Fred, thanks for callling my attention to Oliver Sacks’ new book and to the wonderful article about him. I have been a fan of his writing ever since I read “An Anthropologist on Mars” after my son was diagnosed with autism. (The title essay in that book is about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who stated that, in this world, she sometimes feels like an “anthropologist on Mars” in trying to assimilate). My son says that’s how he feels, too. We have always been inspired by Temple Grandin’s story.

  3. I read an article recently about this new one by Sacks, and I’m with you — anything he writes is bound to be profound. Everything I’ve read of his has had that rare quality of being convicting, intriguing, and inspiring without for a split second being pretentious or preachy. I love the man, and I’m glad he’s still writing.