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Vintage Sacks Paperback – January 6, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-1400033973 ISBN-10: 1400033977 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 6, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400033977
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400033973
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 5.2 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,245,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Vintage Readers are a perfect introduction to some of the great modern writers presented in attractive, accessible paperback editions.

?It is Dr. Sacks?s gift that he has found a way to enlarge our experience and understanding of what the human is.? ?The Wall Street Journal

Dubbed ?the poet laureate of medicine? by The New York Times, Oliver Sacks is a practicing neurologist and a mesmerizing storyteller. His empathetic accounts of his patients?s lives?and wrily observed narratives of his own?convey both the extreme borderlands of human experience and the miracles of ordinary seeing, speaking, hearing, thinking, and feeling.


Vintage Sacks includes the introduction and case study ?Rose R.? from Awakenings (the book that inspired the Oscar-nominated movie), as well as ?A Deaf World? from Seeing Voices; ?The Visions of Hildegard? from Migraine; excerpts from ?Island Hopping? and ?Pingelap? from The Island of the Colorblind; ?A Surgeon?s Life? from An Anthropologist on Mars; and two chapters from Sacks?s acclaimed memoir Uncle Tungsten.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Uncle Tungsten

Many of my childhood memories are of metals: these seemed to exert a power on me from the start. They stood out, conspicuous against the heterogeneousness of the world, by their shining, gleaming quality, their silveriness, their smoothness and weight. They seemed cool to the touch, and they rang when they were struck.

I loved the yellowness, the heaviness, of gold. My mother would take the wedding ring from her finger and let me handle it for a while, as she told me of its inviolacy, how it never tarnished. "Feel how heavy it is," she would add. "It's even heavier than lead." I knew what lead was, for I had handled the heavy, soft piping the plumber had left one year. Gold was soft, too, my mother told me, so it was usually combined with another metal to make it harder.

It was the same with copper-people mixed it with tin to produce bronze. Bronze!-the very word was like a trumpet to me, for battle was the brave clash of bronze upon bronze, bronze spears on bronze shields, the great shield of Achilles. Or you could alloy copper with zinc, my mother said, to produce brass. All of us-my mother, my brothers, and I-had our own brass menorahs for Hanukkah. (My father had a silver one.)

I knew copper, the shiny rose color of the great copper cauldron in our kitchen-it was taken down only once a year, when the quinces and crab apples were ripe in the garden and my mother would stew them to make jelly.

I knew zinc: the dull, slightly bluish birdbath in the garden was made of zinc; and tin, from the heavy tinfoil in which sandwiches were wrapped for a picnic. My mother showed me that when tin or zinc was bent it uttered a special "cry." "It's due to deformation of the crystal structure," she said, forgetting that I was five, and could not understand her-and yet her words fascinated me, made me want to know more.

There was an enormous cast-iron lawn roller out in the garden-it weighed five hundred pounds, my father said. We, as children, could hardly budge it, but he was immensely strong and could lift it off the ground. It was always slightly rusty, and this bothered me, for the rust flaked off, leaving little cavities and scabs, and I was afraid the whole roller might corrode and fall apart one day, reduced to a mass of red dust and flakes. I needed to think of metals as stable, like gold-able to stave off the losses and ravages of time.

I would sometimes beg my mother to take out her engagement ring and show me the diamond in it. It flashed like nothing I had ever seen, almost as if it gave out more light than it took in. She would show me how easily it scratched glass, and then tell me to put it to my lips. It was strangely, startlingly cold; metals felt cool to the touch, but the diamond was icy. That was because it conducted heat so well, she said-better than any metal-so it drew the body heat away from one's lips when they touched it. This was a feeling I was never to forget. Another time, she showed me how if one touched a diamond to a cube of ice, it would draw the heat from one's hand into the ice and cut straight through it as if it were butter. My mother told me that diamond was a special form of carbon, like the coal we used in every room in winter. I was puzzled by this-how could black, flaky, opaque coal be the same as the hard, transparent gemstone in her ring?



I loved light, especially the lighting of the shabbas candles on Friday nights, when my mother would murmur a prayer as she lit them. I was not allowed to touch them once they were lit-they were sacred, I was told, their flames were holy, not to be fiddled with. I was mesmerized by the little cone of blue flame at the candle's center-why was it blue? Our house had coal fires, and I would often gaze into the heart of a fire, watching it go from a dim red glow to orange, to yellow, and then I would blow on it with the bellows until it glowed almost white-hot. If it got hot enough, I wondered, would it blaze blue, be blue-hot?

Did the sun and stars burn in the same way? Why did they never go out? What were they made of? I was reassured when I learned that the core of the earth consisted of a great ball of iron-this sounded solid, something one could depend on. And I was pleased when I was told that we ourselves were made of the very same elements as composed the sun and stars, that some of my atoms might once have been in a distant star. But it frightened me too, made me feel that my atoms were only on loan and might fly apart at any time, fly away like the fine talcum powder I saw in the bathroom.

I badgered my parents constantly with questions. Where did color come from? Why did my mother use the platinum loop that hung above the stove to cause the gas burner to catch fire? What happened to the sugar when one stirred it into the tea? Where did it go? Why did water bubble when it boiled? (I liked to watch water set to boil on the stove, to see it quivering with heat before it burst into bubbles.)

My mother showed me other wonders. She had a necklace of polished yellow pieces of amber, and she showed me how, when she rubbed them, tiny pieces of paper would fly up and stick to them. Or she would put the electrified amber against my ear, and I would hear and feel a tiny snap, a spark.

My two older brothers Marcus and David, nine and ten years older than I, were fond of magnets and enjoyed demonstrating these to me, drawing the magnet beneath a piece of paper on which were strewn powdery iron filings. I never tired of the remarkable patterns that rayed out from the poles of the magnet. "Those are lines of force," Marcus explained to me-but I was none the wiser.

Then there was the crystal radio my brother Michael gave me, which I played with in bed, jiggling the wire on the crystal until I got a station loud and clear. And the luminous clocks-the house was full of them, because my uncle Abe had been a pioneer in the development of luminous paints. These, too, like my crystal radio, I would take under the bedclothes at night, into my private, secret vault, and they would light up my cavern of sheets with an eerie, greenish light.

All these things-the rubbed amber, the magnets, the crystal radio, the clock dials with their tireless coruscations-gave me a sense of invisible rays and forces, a sense that beneath the familiar, visible world of colors and appearances there lay a dark, hidden world of mysterious laws and phenomena.

Whenever we had "a fuse," my father would climb up to the porcelain fusebox high on the kitchen wall, identify the fused fuse, now reduced to a melted blob, and replace it with a new fuse of an odd, soft wire. It was difficult to imagine that a metal could melt-could a fuse really be made from the same material as a lawn roller or a tin can?

The fuses were made of a special alloy, my father told me, a combination of tin and lead and other metals. All of these had relatively low melting points, but the melting point of their alloy was lower still. How could this be so, I wondered? What was the secret of this new metal's strangely low melting point?

For that matter, what was electricity, and how did it flow? Was it a sort of fluid like heat, which could also be conducted? Why did it flow through the metal but not the porcelain? This, too, called for explanation.

My questions were endless, and touched on everything, though they tended to circle around, again and again, to my obsession, the metals. Why were they shiny? Why smooth? Why cool? Why hard? Why heavy? Why did they bend, not break? Why did they ring? Why could two soft metals like zinc and copper, or tin and copper, combine to produce a harder metal? What gave gold its goldness, and why did it never tarnish? My mother was patient, for the most part, and tried to explain, but eventually, when I exhausted her patience, she would say, "That's all I can tell you-you'll have to quiz Uncle Dave to learn more."



We had called him Uncle Tungsten for as long as I could remember, because he manufactured lightbulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire. His firm was called Tungstalite, and I often visited him in the old factory in Farringdon and watched him at work, in a wing collar, with his shirtsleeves rolled up. The heavy, dark tungsten powder would be pressed, hammered, sintered at red heat, then drawn into finer and finer wire for the filaments. Uncle's hands were seamed with the black powder, beyond the power of any washing to get out (he would have to have the whole thickness of epidermis removed, and even this, one suspected, would not have been enough). After thirty years of working with tungsten, I imagined, the heavy element was in his lungs and bones, in every vessel and viscus, every tissue of his body. I thought of this as a wonder, not a curse-his body invigorated and fortified by the mighty element, given a strength and enduringness almost more than human.

Whenever I visited the factory, he would take me around the machines, or have his foreman do so. (The foreman was a short, muscular man, a Popeye with enormous forearms, a palpable testament to the benefits of working with tungsten.) I never tired of the ingenious machines, always beautifully clean and sleek and oiled, or the furnace where the black powder was compacted from a powdery incoherence into dense, hard bars with a grey sheen.

During my visits to the factory, and sometimes at home, Uncle Dave would teach me about metals with little experiments. I knew that mercury, that strange liquid metal, was incredibly heavy and dense. Even lead floated on it, as my uncle showed me by floating a lead bullet in a bowl of quicksilver. But then he pulled out a small grey bar from his pocket, and to my amazement, this sank immediately to the bottom. That, he said, was his metal, tungsten.

Uncle loved the density of the tungsten he made, and its refractoriness, its great chemical stability. He loved to handle it-the wire, the powder, but the massy little bars and ingots most of all. He caressed them, balanced them...

More About the Author

Oliver Sacks was born in London and educated in London, Oxford, California, and New York. He is professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, and Columbia's first University Artist. He is the author of many books, including Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia. His newest book, Hallucinations, will be published in November, 2012.

Customer Reviews

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Doctor Oliver Sacks was an amazing person.
Sandra Angell
Overall this is a good place to start before reading his other books.
Galen K. Valentine
The storytelling style I always appreciate.
Linda Rehm

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Galen K. Valentine on February 14, 2004
Format: Paperback
I heard Dr. Oliver Sacks speak on BookTV recently. What caught my interest was his obvious love for science and the warm, humoruos manner in which he presented the studies and experiments borne of his curiosity. Looking at the list of books he has written in the last 30 or so years I chanced upon, Vintage Sacks. Having never read any of his works before this anthology, of sorts, seemd like a good place to start.
The narrative literary form brings a "human" dimension to science and Dr. Sacks uses it to good affect. This is clearly seen in the selections from Awakings, Seeing Voices, and An Anthropologist on Mars. I found the selections from his autobiography, Uncle Tungsten, less compelling. Though, I must admit his categorizing of sulfur, selenium, and tellurium as "stinkogens" rather humoruos - especially given his penchant for experimenting with these odoriferous compounds and the resultant gas clouds. His retelling of the stories of his childhood on BookTV was far more endearing than the selections chosen from Uncle Tungsten. The addition of the selection from Migrain is rather puzzling. It is only 5 pages long and I can't really tell what purpose the book serves, or even the point he was trying to make. The rest of the selections are significantly longer - enough that you get a feel for the book and his style of writing.
In Seeing Voices he talks about the difference between postlingual and prelingual deafness - a distinction I never really thought about. In postlingual deafness, the affected individual was able to hear before becoming deaf and thus able to develop language skills. Someone who is prelingually deaf was either born, or became shortly after birth, without the ability to hear and so in the absense of remedial measures did not develop language skills.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A .J. Casper on September 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book is most likely the last novel I will be reading this summer. Unfortunately, I have other pressing engagements. But what a brilliant way to end my summer reading stint by reading Sacks! The title "the poet laureate of medicine" is clearly a befitting one for Oliver Sacks. He has an uncanny way of making science lively, fun, and enjoyable. "Vintage Sacks" is a hodgepodge of his various works like "Uncle Tungsten", "Awakenings", "Seeing Voices" and others. The first two chapters are autobiographical, and both are a testament to his love of Science, especially chemistry. Chapter 2 (Stinks and Bangs") does look like a section straight out of a Chemistry textbook or a lab report. It made me think that if I had grown up anywhere near as privileged as Sacks has, I would have froliced with some explosive chemicals in a private lab too.

Reading Sacks' books has given me interest in the roles of dopamine, L-dopa, Haldol, and other compounds and chemicals that affect the brain. Reading "Vintage Sacks" was enlightening in a profound way.

The book deals with subjects like deafness, "oculogyric crises", Tourette's syndrome, and how the senses essentially work together. Dr. Bennett of "A Surgeon's Life" was fascinating. I think he aught to write his won autobiography. It would help to bring awareness to the syndrome. And Sacks' arguments for sign language in "A Deaf World" are compelling. Here, he takes on the voice of an activist. In "Pingelap", Sacks morphs into an awed explorer in the Pacific.

This book would be a great introduction to anyone who might not have read any works by Oliver Sacks before.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Polar Paul on April 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Vintage Sacks is a compilation of excerpts from his other books. Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who writes about science. His writings are for the lay person yet they give great insight into various aspects of human nature. He has excerpts from Awakenings about how a group of patients come out of catatonia with the administration of an experimental drug only to later go back into catatonia. He talks about tourette's syndrome, the deaf coummunity, an island of color blind people, and his boyhood experiences that led him to become a scientist.

The only reason this book gets such a low rating from me is because I feel you'd be better off getting the original books rather than excerpts from them. Nevertheless, he does frequently give insight into how his perspective on the subject has changed since the first publication of the material.
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