Thinking with another person's mind is the very goal that drives
neurologist Oliver Sacks. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,
Sacks' sixth book, gets its title from a comment made by the autistic
engineer Temple Grandin while she tries to describe her futile attempts at
cracking the "normal" social code. In the "seven paradoxical tales"
related in An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Sacks attempts to
see beyond the "disease" afflicting the neurological systems of his
subjects. The author wants to discover the beauty in the minds of those
who think in ways most of us cannot even fathom.
Sacks leaves behind the cold, clinical view of the hospital and
spends quality time with his subjects in their normal environments.
He goes on trips, takes holidays, really gets to know -- as well as
he can -- the neurologically different people about whom he writes.
He even takes the "Last Hippie," a man stripped of short-term memory and
chronologically stranded in the Sixties by a massive tumor, to a
Grateful Dead concert. Sacks' empathy for the subjects of his study,
his desire to understand the different neurological worlds they inhabit,
make for touching and humane writing.
The range of minds, talents and inner worlds Sacks examines is wide.
He acquaints himself with an artist whose world is suddenly and apparently
irreversibly rendered in shades of black and white after an auto accident
in "The Case of the Colorblind Painter." He befriends a man with
Tourette's syndrome in "A Surgeon's Life" whose career is as successful as it is
startling. In "To See and Not See," Sacks chronicles the decline of a
blind man's health and outlook following the operation that gives him sight after
a lifetime lived without vision. Another artist paints only images of
his childhood home obsessively with emotionally rendered, eerily
photographic accuracy, a home he hasn't visited for thirty years, in
"The Landscape of His Dreams." In "Prodigies," the author describes
an autistic boy whose stunning artwork has been collected in several books.
And in "An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales," he spends a weekend in the enigmatic company of autistic author and
engineer Temple Grandin, a woman whose inability to fathom social
interaction between humans has a flip side enabling her to feel an
incredible empathy with animals.
The two most moving tales Sacks tells are of the eternal hippie,
forever-flower-child, and of the autistic young artist from "Prodigies."
It is in these two instances that Sacks seems to strive the hardest to
make an emotional connection, in both cases with individuals who are
as far from "normally" able to create and sustain such connections as
possible. His desire to cross an invisible bridge into inner worlds
not possible for him to inhabit, and his attempts nonetheless, make
Oliver Sacks the perfect choice for bringing back snapshots of these
uncommon, lovely-for-what-they-are landscapes. An Anthropologist
on Mars gives us a wondering, nonjudgmental glimpse of vistas
that we "normal" people will never have the chance otherwise to see.