Sunday, December 9, 2012

Day 9: I Might be Hallucinating....

Welcome to Day 9 of our 24 Days of Books. Although I do not read hard science, I am a fan of science in general and am quick to acknowledge my love for the facts and especially the speculations that science brings into our lives, to say nothing of the profound truths that are made evident to us by the various scientific disciplines. As a bookseller and a reader, I am always appreciative of a scientist who can write for the general public and explore/explain parts of this world (which is to say, parts of THE world – and beyond) without talking down to us. Of these authors, my consistent favorite over many years has been Oliver Sacks.

Dr. Sacks, a neurologist known to many from his long articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere, is perhaps the most elegant and eloquent writer in his field. He has become known to millions of readers for his great empathy for patients, as well as his crystal-clear explanations of their medical conditions and the circumstances of their lives. My first encounter with his work was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was a collection of fascinating pieces about various patients with cognitive disorders. A later book, An Anthropologist on Mars, was similar in format and included what may be his most famous patient profile, that of Temple Grandin, an extremely high-functioning autistic woman who has since become quite famous for her groundbreaking work with large animals and her own lectures on cattle as well as autism. (A very good made-for-TV movie of her life, starring Claire Danes, is worth watching if you have not seen it.) Another of his books, Awakenings, was made into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name that starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Dr. Sacks was written many books about his work (as well as a memoir, Uncle Tungsten, which details his very accomplished and scientific family). Most of his books use individual patients and friends as illustrations of particular phenomena, and from these beginnings he launches into larger discussions. He has dealt at length with blindness, Parkinson’s disease, music and its effects on the human brain, migraine headaches, and many more topics. He often uses his own personal experiences to augment the discussions, which is unusual for scientific writers.  He has written about people afflicted with face-blindness (the inability to recognize people by their faces) by confessing to this affliction himself, for instance. How lucky we are to have such an articulate scientist who is also able to personalize a topic so well!

This season, Knopf has published Dr. Sacks’ book, Hallucinations ($26.95). Many people think that hallucinations happen only to “crazy” people. Wrong, of course. They happen to people who are suffering from sensory deprivation (this is what a “vision quest” is). They happen to people who are ill, or injured, or having migraine headaches. They happen to those who are intoxicated. They happen when certain drugs are ingested. They often happen for no reason at all, to perfectly normal and healthy people. They happen to you and they happen to me.

Most of us think of hallucinations as visual. But they can also affect other senses. People can hallucinate sounds (did you ever hear someone call your name in an empty room?). We can hallucinate smells! I suspect each of us has had the eerie feeling that someone was following us, and turned around to see nobody there. There are tactile hallucinations, such as the sensation of bugs crawling on your skin. These are all common neurologically based imaginings.

As a young doctor in California in the 1960s, Oliver Sacks had a personal as well as professional interest in psychedelic drugs. He also suffered from migraines. These interests and experiences are brought to bear here, in an extremely literate and compassionate look at his own and his patients’ experimentation with drugs and subsequent mind-wanderings. This is part of the book, but certainly not all.

Because he is one of the world’s most curious people, Dr. Sacks’ new book covers a lot of ground. There are chapters that deal with visual hallucinations of blind people as well as various sorts of hallucinations by epileptics and narcoleptics. Discussions of people who have “left their own body” and people who “hear voices." So much more! This book tells us about the organization and structure of our brains, how hallucinations have influenced every culture’s folklore and art and religion, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all.

And BONUS: most of the footnotes are little works of art. I love this book.

While I'm on the topic of science books, I just have to mention a few more that would make great gifts. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers is known for publishing a strikingly beautiful and informative series of science books -- first a book on the elements of the periodic table, followed by a book on the solar system. This year they offer us another exquisitely unusual book on skulls. Yes, I said skulls. Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection, with text by Simon Winchester and photographs by Nick Mann. At the center of Skulls is a stunning, never-before-seen visual array of the skulls of more than 300 animals that walk, swim, and fly. The skulls are from the collection of Alan Dudley, a British collector and owner of what is probably the largest and most complete private collection of skulls in the world. Every skull is beautifully photographed to show several angles and to give the reader the most intimate view possible. Each includes a short explanatory paragraph and a data box with information on the animal's taxonomy, behavior, and diet, as well as a photograph of the animal itself ($29.95)

A northwest-oriented science book that would make a great gift is David Douglas, a Naturalist at Work: An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in the Pacific Northwest, published by Sasquatch Books ($27.95). During a meteoric career that spanned from 1825 to 1834, David Douglas made the first systematic collections of flora and fauna over many parts of the greater Pacific Northwest. Despite his early death, colleagues in Great Britain attached the Douglas name to more than 80 different species, including the iconic timber tree of the region. This book is a colorfully illustrated collection of essays by Jack Nisbet that examines various aspects of Douglas's career, 

And finally, one I just can't resist telling you about is Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries that Made Our world, by Randy Alfred (Little Brown and Company; $19.99), which offers 365 days of inventions, discoveries, science, and technology, from the editors of Wired Magazine. This well-packaged collection of intriguing anecdotes will appeal to hardcore techies and curious laypeople alike.

As always, you can find many more gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available in our store. See you soon!


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