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The River of Consciousness
Cover of The River of Consciousness
The River of Consciousness
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From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks's passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.
Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders—autism, Tourette's syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.
From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks's passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.
Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders—autism, Tourette's syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.
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  • From the book 9780385352567|excerpt

    Sacks / RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS

    Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers

    We all know the canonical story of Charles Darwin: the twenty-­two-­year-­old embarking on the Beagle, going to the ends of the earth; Darwin in Patagonia; Darwin on the Argentine pampas (managing to lasso the legs of his own horse); Darwin in South America, collecting the bones of giant extinct animals; Darwin in Australia—­still a religious believer—­startled at his first sight of a kangaroo ("surely two distinct Creators must have been at work"). And, of course, Darwin in the Galápagos, observing how the finches were different on each island, starting to experience the seismic shift in understanding how living things evolve that, a quarter of a century later, would result in the publication of On the Origin of Species. The story climaxes here, with the publication of the Origin in November 1859, and has a sort of elegiac postscript: a vision of the older and ailing Darwin, in the twenty-­odd years remaining to him, pottering around his gardens at Down House with no particular plan or purpose, perhaps throwing off a book or two, but with his major work long completed.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin remained intensely sensitive both to criticisms and to evidence supporting his theory of natural selection, and this led him to bring out no fewer than five editions of the Origin. He might indeed have retreated (or returned) to his garden and his greenhouses after 1859 (there were extensive grounds around Down House, and five greenhouses), but for him these became engines of war, from which he would lob great missiles of evidence at the skeptics outside—­descriptions of extraordinary structures and behaviors in plants very difficult to ascribe to special creation or design—­a mass of evidence for evolution and natural selection even more overwhelming than that presented in the Origin.

    Strangely, even Darwin scholars pay relatively little attention to this botanical work, even though it encompassed six books and seventy-­odd papers. Thus Duane Isely, in his 1994 book, One Hundred and One Botanists, writes that while

    more has been written about Darwin than any other biologist who ever lived . . . [he] is rarely presented as a botanist. . . . The fact that he wrote several books about his research on plants is mentioned in much Darwinia, but it is casual, somewhat in the light of "Well, the great man needs to play now and then."

    Darwin had always had a special, tender feeling for plants and a special admiration, too. ("It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings," he wrote in his autobiography.) He grew up in a botanical family—­his grandfather Erasmus Darwin had written a long, two-­volume poem called The Botanic Garden, and Charles himself grew up in a house whose extensive gardens were filled not only with flowers but with a variety of apple trees crossbred for increased vigor. As a university student at Cambridge, the only lectures Darwin consistently attended were those of the botanist J. S. Henslow, and it was Henslow, recognizing the extraordinary qualities of his student, who recommended him for a position on the Beagle.

    It was to Henslow that Darwin wrote very detailed letters full of observations about the fauna and flora and geology of the places he visited. (These letters, when printed and circulated, were to make Darwin famous in scientific circles even before the Beagle returned to England.) And it was for Henslow that Darwin, in the Galápagos, made a careful...
About the Author-
  • OLIVER SACKS was born in 1933 in London and was educated at Queen's College, Oxford. He completed his medical training at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital and at UCLA before moving to New York.
    Familiar to the readers of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Dr. Sacks spent more than fifty years working as a neurologist and wrote many books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, and Hallucinations, about the strange neurological predicaments and conditions of his patients. The New York Times referred to him as "the poet laureate of medicine," and over the years he received many awards, including honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal College of Physicians. His memoir On the Move was published shortly before his death in August 2015.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2017

    One of two books distinguished scientist and best-selling author Sacks was working on at his death in 2015, this essay collection grapples with the key ideas of evolution, creativity, time, memory, consciousness, and experience. Given the sheer range of his knowledge, the connections he makes here are bound to shimmer.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    August 15, 2017
    Fans of the late neurologist have another chance to enjoy this erudite, compassionate storyteller, essayist, and memoirist in what may be his final work.This collection of 10 essays, some of which appeared previously in the New York Review of Books, was assembled by three colleagues from an outline provided by Sacks (Gratitude, 2015, etc.) two weeks before his death in 2015. Here, the author explores evolution, time, memory and forgetting, experience, creativity, and consciousness. As his colleagues note, Sacks "interrogates the nature not only of human experience but of all life (including botanical life)." Readers will see how Darwin's botanical work provided the strongest evidence for evolution and natural selection, the different ways in which time is perceived and experienced, and the fallibility of memory (explored in a fascinating piece on cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism). The essay on misheard words, a real problem for the aging Sacks, is the shortest entry and also the funniest. The most speculative is "Scotoma," a neurological term for a disconnect in perception, which Sacks uses to refer to the neglect or oversight of an idea proposed or a discovery made before its time. This gives the author the chance to explore how the history of science might have been different. The longest, densest, and most technically demanding is the title essay, "The River of Consciousness," in which Sacks examines what neuroscientists have begun to learn about the neural basis of consciousness, from relatively simple mechanisms such as perception to more complex issues such as memory, imagery, and reflection. Interestingly, the collection can be seen as a subtle reminder of this polymath's previous works, for references to a number of these appear throughout the text and in footnotes. A collection of dissimilar pieces that reveal the scope of the author's interests--sometimes challenging, always rewarding.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from September 25, 2017
    Acclaimed neurologist Sacks (1933–2015) demonstrates the range of his knowledge of evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts in this collection of 10 essays he was working on before his death in 2015. The book is a tribute to his appreciation of all that’s beautifully complex in humans. In “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers,” Sacks examines Darwin’s late-career studies of plants and worms, writing of Darwin’s belief that natural beauty “always reflected function and adaptation at work.” In “Speed,” he lauds William James for his exploration of the perception of time and how it was altered “by the effects of certain drugs.” Sacks also lends his own perspective on the perception of time, gleaned from working with patients with “disorders of neural speed,” which he documented in 1973’s Awakenings. One of the most moving pieces, “The Fallibility of Memory,” argues that humans are “landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.” Sacks pays homage to Freud in “Mishearings,” asserting that Freudian slips are more than expressions of repressed feelings: “They reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences.” Sacks also writes about his own cancer in “A General Feeling of Disorder” and how a respite from sickness filled him with gratitude. Readers will feel a similar sense of gratitude for the extraordinary work that Sacks left behind.

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