Oliver Sacks’ Recommended Reading List of 46 Books: From Plants and Neuroscience, to Poetry and the Prose of Nabokov

Image by Luigi Novi. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We remember Oliver Sacks as a neurologist, but we remember him not least because he wrote quite a few books as well. If you read those books, you'll get a sense of Sacks' wide range of interests — invention, perception and misperception, hallucination, and more — few of which lack a connection to the human mind. His passion for ferns, the core subject of a travelogue he wrote in Oaxaca as well as an unexpectedly frequent object of reference in his other writings and talks, may seem an outlier. But for Sacks, ferns offered one more window into the kingdom of nature that produced humanity, and which throughout his life he tried to understand by observing from as many different angles as possible.

No small amount of evidence of that pursuit appears in Sacks' list of 46 book recommendations commissioned for The Strand's "Author's Bookshelf" series. (See the full list below.) A fair few of its selections, including William James' The Principles of PsychologyA.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonistand Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens, seem like natural favorites for a writer so endlessly fascinated by human cognition and consciousness.

Tracing the development of the human brain and mind would, of course, lead to an interest in biology and evolution, here resulting in such picks as Edward O. Wilson's Naturalist, Carl Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Ideaand the journals Charles Darwin kept aboard the Beagle.

But Sacks wasn't just an observer of the brain: some of his most interesting writings come out of the times he used himself as a kind of research subject — as when he found out what he could learn on amphetamines and LSD. A similar line of inquiry no doubt showed him the value of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and in less altered states the likes of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. But whichever paths took Sacks toward his knowledge, he ultimately had to get that knowledge down on paper himself, and the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the poetry of W.H. Auden and the philosophy of David Hume surely did their part to inspire his incisive and evocative style. We would all, whatever our interests, like to write like Oliver Sacks: if these books shaped him as a writer and thinker, who are we to demur from, say, A Natural History of Ferns?

  • A Natural History of Ferns by Robbin C. Moran
  • A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud by Karl Sabbagh
  • A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
  • A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine by Mike Jay
  • Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner
  • Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
  • Cannery Row (Steinbeck Centennial Edition (1902-2002)) by John Steinbeck
  • Challenger & Company: the Complete Adventures of Professor Challenger and His Intrepid Team-The Lost World, The Poison Belt, The Land of Mists, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
  • Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond by Robert R. Provine
  • Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough by Rebecca Stott
  • Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer
  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura J. Snyder
  • God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet
  • Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
  • Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival by Jay Neugeboren
  • In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R. Kandel
  • Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World by Abraham Pais
  • Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
  • Lost in America: A Journey with My Father by Sherwin B. Nuland
  • Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel
  • Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
  • Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran
  • Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy Bernstein
  • Same and Not the Same by Roald Hoffmann
  • Selected Poems by Thom Gunn
  • Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants by Katy Payne
  • Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  • The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy by Bill Hayes
  • The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
  • The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio
  • The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
  • The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow
  • The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory by A. R. Luria
  • The Principles of Psychology (Volume Two) by William James
  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  • Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin
  • Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Jonathan Weiner
  • Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journals of Researches by Charles Darwin
  • What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
  • What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery by Francis Crick
  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould

To purchase books on this list, visit The Strand's website.

Related Content:

This is What Oliver Sacks Learned on LSD and Amphetamines

Oliver Sacks Contemplates Mortality (and His Terminal Cancer Diagnosis) in a Thoughtful, Poignant Letter

A First Look at The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a Feature-Length Journey Into the Mind of the Famed Neurologist

Oliver Sacks Explains the Biology of Hallucinations: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

Oliver Sacks’ Final Interview: A First Look

29 Lists of Recommended Books Created by Well-Known Authors, Artists & Thinkers: Jorge Luis Borges, Patti Smith, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, David Bowie & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.


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