Book Review: Oliver Sacks’ The River of Consciousness is a look inside a beautiful and enquiring mind

For decades Oliver Sacks was lauded as a gifted scientist and storyteller. He penned several books, the most famous being Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Prior to his death from cancer in 2015 Sacks had been busy working on two final books. The first, Gratitude, was published posthumously in late 2015. The latest is called The River of Consciousness and it’s a fascinating collection of essays from a beautiful and enquiring mind.

Readers familiar with Sacks’ work will know of his curiosity and that he was a seeker of truth consumed with an insatiable desire to know what it means to be a human. While some of his previous works focused more on the patients Sacks had treated as a neurologist, this collection sees Sacks expanding on that position by also playing the role of historian and analyst of science, as well as botanist and marine biologist. The result is a series of essays originally published in The New York Review Of Books, and collected together in this new text. They are broad in depth, insightful in terms of content, and luminescent in their ability to deconstruct quite complex scientific phenomena, leaving the average reader with explanations that they can comprehend and enjoy.

One of the strongest sections of this collection explores the fallibility of memory, with Sacks looking at how people have inadvertently plagiarised others through having heard or seen someone else’s original work. This happens when one appears to have forgotten this previous experience, only to regurgitate large slabs of the other’s work at a later date with great accuracy. Sacks also explores the phenomenon of false memories recounting a story he previously told in his memoirs, and highlighting that despite his vivid and rich recall of this particular incident he was not an active participant, but had merely learned about the occurrence through a letter that his family had once received.

Those readers who are fans of Charles Darwin’s work will no doubt enjoy Sacks’ commentary about the famous evolutionist. Whilst many of us are familiar with Darwin’s theories and research in relation to evolution, Sacks takes a different route shining a light on Darwin’s work and interest in the field of botany. It is interesting to read about the electrical impulses found in the Venus Fly-Trap for example, or how plants and pollinators seem to evolve and feed off each other over time. The River of Consciousness is ultimately full of various tangents, divergences and anecdotes and it is really something you can find yourself enjoying and getting lost in (in a good way).

It is obvious from this volume that Sacks to the very end remained enthusiastic and passionate about science. His voice is erudite and clear, and poses and answers questions with amazing insight, colourful prose and in-depth commentary. The River Of Consciousness will be a welcome read for fans of Sacks’ previous work, while those unfamiliar with this scientist can find their own delicious lessons and ideas amidst this thoughtful, varied and intelligent set.

The River of Consciousness is available now through Pan Macmillan Australia


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