When Oliver Sacks died in 2015, the world lost a writer whose insatiable curiosity about the connections between every facet of life permeated his elegant, joyous and illuminating essays and books. His memoirs, such as Uncle Tungsten, reveal a man peering into the corners of life and discovering sparkling rays connecting family life, human nature and the life of the mind. His books, from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to Musicophilia, lead us gently and warmly into the labyrinths of psychology and the quirkiness of science without losing us along the way.
Two weeks before he died, Sacks outlined the contents of The River of Consciousness and directed the book’s three editors to arrange its publication. Although a number of the essays in this collection appeared previously in The New York Review of Books (the book is dedicated to the late Robert Silvers, its longtime editor), they read as if they’ve been written just for us. In the essays, Sacks moves over and through topics ranging from speed and time, creativity, memory and its failings, disorder, consciousness, evolution and botany. In a fascinating essay on Charles Darwin, Sacks reminds us that Darwin was deeply interested in botany and spent much of his time following the publication of The Origin of Species exploring the evolution of plants. Sacks points out that Darwin illuminated for the first time the coevolution of plants and insects. Creativity, according to Sacks, is “physiologically distinctive. . . . If we had the ability to make fine enough brain images, these would show an unusual and widespread activity with innumerable connections and synchronizations occurring.”
Sacks’ golden voice and his brilliant insights live on in the essays collected in The River of Consciousness, and for that we’re fortunate.