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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