You may think of Oliver Sacks, the renowned teller of weird-but-true tales about the vagaries of the human brain, as a neurologist first and an author second. If he had to choose, he would disagree. He aspired to be a writer at age 12, a feat he accomplished decades ago, with the publication of "Migraine" in 1970 and "Awakenings" in 1973. At 75, with his 10 books, he has achieved far more: His clinical but compassionate yarns have changed the nature of medical writing.
Pressed a little, Dr. Sacks concurs: "For better or worse, or both, it's true that I've played a part in putting careful narrative back in medical writing." When he started, case write-ups emphasized diagnosis, not story. Nowadays, best-selling authors like Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman are plowing the field Dr. Sacks seeded -- or, more precisely, reseeded, since Dr. Sacks drew inspiration from Alexander Luria's famous 19th-century case history of a man with a limitless memory.
There's also a journal, Neurocase, that publishes case histories as narratives. And Dr. Sacks's stories have become movies, plays, operas and TV shows. "Human beings are storytellers, and I am a story-teller," he explains, recalling that he came to the U.S. from Britain in 1960 with an itch to write but unsure of what to write about and whether he should stay in medicine. Only after he learned the enthralling stories of his migraine patients did he find the plotline of his life.
Dr. Sacks, who is giving a lecture tonight at the Cooper Union on the relationship between the mind and music, rejects any idea that he set out to spread the gospel of science. "I'm not evangelistically inclined," he says. "But having said that, I like to convey my own enthusiasm and wonder about nature -- even about things that seem very grim."
On July 9, Dr. Sacks celebrated his 75th birthday with an extra long daily swim (two hours) and a party. The Committee of Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union marked the milestone by naming an asteroid "Oliversacks" in his honor. But he wasn't deterred from his work, which normally commences in his neat Greenwich Village office at 8 a.m. At the moment, Dr. Sacks's work involves revisions to his best seller, "Musicophilia," which will be published as an expanded paperback in September, and an article on Darwin as botanist, which was triggered by the recent "Darwin's Garden" exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden.
Dr. Sacks -- master of oddities -- has a few quirks of his own. Though he can quickly find his "Science Is Fun" cap, carries a periodic table in his wallet, and proudly pulls out a chemical clock, with symbols of the elements in place of numerals, he doesn't like being called a "science writer." It's a stance that might assuage his detractors, who say that his tales stint on science and provide few insights.
Nor does Dr. Sacks use a computer: He writes -- he's a self-described "nonstop writer of journals," more than 700 so far -- with a pen on paper or an electric typewriter. "I love the physicality of paper," he says. "I don't see it as antiscientific. The computer is used a lot here." It's just that it's used by Kate Edgar, his editor/assistant, who prints out the 50 or so emails he receives each day.
"Musicophilia," which examines musical misalignments in the brain that lead to unusual powers or disorders, elicited at least 1,000 letters, emails or calls describing new or similar cases. "About 50 of them were so interesting that I wanted to include them in the new edition," Dr. Sacks says. "My books tend to get larger and larger." Not a moment passes before his brain jumps to an obvious connection: "The Darwin article will turn into a book," he says.
He is well-prepared for that. Leaping up from his chair, Dr. Sacks pulls down a couple of rebound books, Darwin's writings on botany, from a bookcase and points to an inscription in one that he made in 1948. "I may have wanted to write about it all my life," he muses. "Darwin regarded his botany books as being a flank movement on the enemy -- he knew that people would object to being descendent from apes. But people were charmed by natural selection in the garden, because it was no threat to their identity."
Thoughts evolve, too, and Dr. Sacks relates that since the publication of "Musicophilia" in 2007, he has been revising his about why humans are a musical species. Although he still believes that some aspects of music are hard-wired in the brain, particularly movement with rhythm, he now believes that other elements of music are like handwriting, a cultural invention. "Everyone can learn handwriting, and they make use of many brain systems to do so," he says. If he's correct, some neurosystems meant for something else were redeployed by the brain for music. Where this will lead him is unclear, but it does not change his belief in the power of music as both therapy and, sometimes, affliction.
At a certain moment, Dr. Sachs gets up from his chair to increase the volume on the Brahms that is playing almost imperceptibly in the background. His lifelong passion for music apparently cuts both ways: While Dr. Sacks volunteers that he sometimes starts listening and stops everything else, he also adds that he often goes to concerts, sits in the back with a notebook in hand, and writes. "Nietzsche said 'Bizet makes me a better philosopher,' " Dr. Sacks says.
For the first time in more than 60 years, he has started taking piano lessons. "I only want to play Bach," he says. "My teacher is fighting me; she says you must play Bartok." In truth, his taste goes beyond Bach, but includes only classical music from the 1600s to about 1950. "I'm not proud of that," he adds, recalling that while one of his brothers loved jazz, he never succumbed to its charms. As for pop and rap, "I have no affinity for it," he says.
About two years ago, Dr. Sacks was found to have a tumor in his right eye. Lasering caused him to lose central, but not peripheral, vision in that eye. He can see pretty well with his left eye, but he has lost the perception of depth.
So now he has become his own experiment in accommodation, using bouncing balls and other devices to teach himself to make better use of his good eye. It's working, to a point, he says, revealing an incident he had playing ping pong last summer. "I swung with great velocity, and thought I had it," he says with a smile. "But . . . it turned out that my swing missed by four feet."
So, he concludes, "My world is now very flat. Now I go to the Cloisters" -- the Metropolitan Museum's medieval art branch in upper Manhattan -- "because I have an affinity for 13th-century paintings," made before artists learned to paint with perspective.
But Dr. Sacks is sure that "learning remains available throughout life, though it's somewhat slower as one gets old." He adds: "This old brain can still take on a big subject, and I think I will continue to do so unless I get Alzheimer's. I had an MRI recently, and it looked like the brain of a 30-year-old."