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Review: Oliver Sacks’s The River of Consciousness reminds us of his range and rewards

Title
The River of Consciousness
Author
Oliver Sacks
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
237
Price
$32

In The Fallibility of Memory, perhaps the most dexterously associative essay in The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks writes, "while I often give lectures on certain topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions […] Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, I discover my themes afresh each time." This typically self-effacing, bemused statement prompts those familiar with Sacks's body of work to smile in recognition: The more books the late author, neurologist and educator published, the more frequently his writing looped back to earlier writings as a way of venturing further into the fascinating and mysterious zones of science and human experience that constituted his literary domain.

This statement also prompts Sacks's reader to marvel at the precision and relaxed economy with which he would revisit or renovate those earlier books: Rather than slavishly explicate or fortify the defence of an earlier breakthrough, one always feels with each new work from Sacks that a conversation is simply continuing, one never less than rigorously curious, but also necessarily circular, referencing previous points of engagement as a way to move forward or expand an ever-yielding idea. That feeling is no less acute with The River of Consciousness. There are few completely new ideas being expressed in this posthumously published volume of essays, several of which had appeared in The New York Review of Books, but neither is there ever the feeling of retread or mere cozy familiarity. Part of the reason we love Sacks, who died in 2015 at the age of 82, is because he never lost his restless fever for learning or for sharing his learning through writing.

That restlessness is itself the subject of A General Feeling of Disorder, another essay in River, which describes, among other things, Sacks's experience with being given an embolization as a way to delay the spread of cancer that would soon take his life. The prolonged pain and discomfort brought on by this procedure is no less harrowing for Sacks's fact-oriented reportage, but what is both amusing and moving is his detailing of the euphoric busyness that overtakes him the moment his body begins to recover. There was always a surfeit of work to do, people to meet, activities to enjoy, things to discover. We should all hope to greet age and death with such grace and energy.

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Part of that energy was devoted to this book, which his editors tell us was "the last book [Sacks] would oversee." Sacks began publishing books in his late 30s with Migraine, an enduring study that has the wisdom to marvel at the titular disorder's enigmatic causes, conditions and diversity of effects, rather than attempt to contain them. Favouring an accessible literary style over advancing theory to a cloistered readership, his writing would become more lyrical, anecdotal and personal – although the engine for his books was nearly always other people. Many of his most beloved works, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, are inspired exercises in curation, compendiums of unusual or emblematic neurological case studies that skeptical readers could regard as freak shows were Sacks's narratives not rendered with such a balance of inquiry and compassion. The most recent wave of books tended to take on broad topics announced in their marketing-ready titles: Musicophilia, The Mind's Eye, Hallucinations.

What distinguishes The River of Consciousness, in a sense, is its apparent lack of focus. With essays on subjects as varied as Charles Darwin's underappreciated writings on botany; the mental life of worms; Freud's formative work in neurology and anatomy; the contrast between Borgesian and Humean models of time; the co-evolution of flowers and insects; the dialogue between vision, velocity and technology; and, most resonant to me, the fundamental value of forgetting to the creative process, perhaps the sole unifying theme is Sacks's unmistakable voice and dizzying array of interests. Which is precisely what imbues this book with such wonder.

Whether defending George Harrison's plagiarizing He's So Fine as a case of cryptomnesia or speculating as to why chaos theory wasn't developed centuries earlier, Sacks's intellectual trajectories are eloquent, witty and adherent to a sturdy internal logic. He troubles the frontiers of all creatures and things until the world feels more alive in its entirety. True to its title, the book is dictated by a flood of mental energy, thus it is more than mere sentimentality to say that, more than two years after his death, Sacks's spirit still courses through us. Long may it flow.

José Teodoro is a freelance critic and playwright.

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