Oaxaca Journal

Overview

Oliver Sacks is best known as an explorer of the human mind, a neurologist with a gift for the complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions that fuel the phenomenal success of his books. But he is also a card-carrying member of the American Fern Society, and since childhood has been fascinated by these primitive plants and their ability to survive and adapt. Now the best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat brings his ceaseless curiosity and eye for the wondrous...
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Overview

Oliver Sacks is best known as an explorer of the human mind, a neurologist with a gift for the complex, insightful portrayals of people and their conditions that fuel the phenomenal success of his books. But he is also a card-carrying member of the American Fern Society, and since childhood has been fascinated by these primitive plants and their ability to survive and adapt. Now the best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat brings his ceaseless curiosity and eye for the wondrous to the province of Oaxaca, Mexico.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The neurologist who gifted the reading world with Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has made a career of deliciously appropriate detours. Now he offers us one more. Ever since he was a child, Sacks has been a fern fancier. Recently, he took leave from his very busy professional life and ventured into the wilds of Oaxaca, Mexico, to search for these primitive plants. Sacks being Sacks, he discovered much more than ferns in this fertile, history-steeped province. Brimming with wit and curiosity, his journal of the trip is the latest spellbinding addition to the much-publicized National Geographic Directions series.
New Yorker
The eminent neurologist is also a fern lover, and this book is his record of a ten-day "fern foray" in southern Mexico. It is light and fast-moving, unburdened by library research but filled with erudition. Some of his fellow-foragers are professional pteridologists; others are amateurs, and there is a certain romance in the sight of smitten fern hunters crawling through the Mexican dust exclaiming in Latin. Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks's inner life: his preoccupation with dualities, his nearly Victorian sense of modesty, his fascination with the world around him. He could be speaking of himself when he comments on a colleague peering through a hand lens at a small mountain flower: "Is it the artist or the scientist in him which is aroused by the Lobelia? Both, clearly, and they are utterly fused."
Providence Journal
Oaxaca Journal whipped up my appetite for a visit to Mexico, as the best travel writing does.
New York Times
Sacks’s boundless curiosity is always a reward.
Globe and Mail
Like all the best journals, it has a rich immediacy…the book is a rare treat.
From the Publisher
“A delightful work.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Sacks’s boundless curiosity is always a reward.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Sacks doesn't waste a word. . . . He deftly characterizes people he meets along the way, smoothly slips facts from his wide-ranging reading into his narrative, expertly describes landscapes and raises up a hero: Boone Hallberg, a U.S.-born scientist who has lived in Oaxaca since the 1940s, working to conserve the priceless diversity of the natural world.” –San Francisco Chronicle

"Light and fast-moving. . . . Among the botanical and anthropological observations, one catches glimpses of Sacks's inner life: his preoccupation with dualities, his nearly Victorian sense of modesty, his fascination with the world around him." —The New Yorker
 
"Like all the best journals, it has a rich immediacy, a sense that we share the moment of the author’s perceptions. Since Sacks is such a lovely writer, and he and his fellow travelers such fonts of knowledge about everything from Mexican history to Mayan culture to chocolate making to the workings of fern evolution, the book is a rare treat. . . . It makes you want to strap on your field glasses and catch the first flight south." –The Globe and Mail
 
“Relaxed yet observant. . . . [Sacks’] thoughtful, sometimes wistful ruminations, no matter how expansive they may grow, are always rooted in the concrete details he has observed. . . . Those who read Oaxaca Journal will appreciate Sacks’ own diligence as an observer and his skill in translating the wonders of the material world into words.” —Los Angeles Times
 
"Oaxaca Journal whipped up my appetite for a visit to Mexico, as the best travel writing does." —The Providence Journal
 
“The combination of his insatiable curiosity and rigorous scientific observation makes him an excellent travelling companion. . . . Mexico past and present emerges from these bursts of association and digression. . . . With so much of the world made superficially familiar by tourism, Oliver Sacks’s dogged pursuit of the exotic is especially welcome. He has, moreover, succeeded in striking that elusive balance of input between traveler and culture that makes for good travel writing.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“Bittersweet and profound. . . . Truly a lovely book.” —The Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780792242086
  • Publisher: National Geographic Society
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Series: National Geographic Directions Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.55 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the author of more than ten books, including Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which inspired the Oscar-nominated film). He lives in New York City, where he is professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and the first Columbia University Artist.

Biography

"I think writing and language are not just to articulate or communicate, but they are also to investigate," the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks once said. "For me, writing and medicine, writing and science, are not separate: they entail each other." Sacks grew up in a large and prodigiously gifted family of scientists; with their encouragement, he set up his own chemistry lab and spent his days in a swirl of sulfurous fumes and smoke. He was also fascinated by biographies, and spent hours poring over the lives of great scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev, Humphrey Davy,and Marie Curie. When the chaos of World War II and traumatic experiences at boarding school intruded on the "lyrical, mystical perceptions" of Sacks' childhood, he clung to scientific knowledge as a means of ordering and understanding the universe.

After his medical training at Oxford, Sacks migrated to the States to pursue a career in neurology research. But he made a clumsy lab researcher. "I was always dropping things or breaking things," he explained in a lecture, "and eventually they said: 'Get out! Go work with patients. They're less important.'" Sacks went to work at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he was struck by the sight of patients who had survived encephalitis lethargica, the "sleeping sickness." The patients were nearly immobile, but the nurses who cared for them insisted that there were living personalities behind the frozen masks, and Sacks believed the nurses. The story of his work with these patients is told in Sacks' 1973 book Awakenings, which inspired a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro and also formed the basis of a play by Harold Pinter.

But Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars et al.), which probe the experiences of people with disorders and rare neurological conditions. In telling their stories, he often questions our assumptions about the nature of human consciousness. Part what distinguishes Sacks' work from the traditional case study is his interest in how a patient functions with a disorder, not just how he or she is impaired by it.

Sacks has also drawn on personal experience for wonderfully resonant scientific memoirs that recall his remarkable family, people who have influenced and inspired him, and his lifelong love of medicine and physical science. Meanwhile, he continues to work with patients, to understand them through writing about them, and to point his readers toward new ways of understanding themselves. As Thomas P. Sakmar, interim president of Rockefeller University, said in awarding Sacks the Lewis Thomas Prize: "Sacks presses us to follow him into uncharted regions of human experience -- and compels us to realize, once there, that we are confronting only ourselves."

Good To Know

As a child, Sacks was fascinated by the periodic table of the elements at the Science Museum in London. His boyhood love of chemistry hasn't waned: according to an article in Wired, Sacks owns half a dozen T-shirts with the periodic table printed on them, along with periodic-table coffee mugs, tote bags and mousepads.

Sacks's memoir Uncle Tungsten inspired the creation of Theodore Gray's Periodic Table Table, a wooden table representing Mendeleev's table of the elements and containing samples of each element. Sacks later paid a visit to see the Periodic Table Table -- wearing, of course, one of his periodic-table T-shirts.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958

Read an Excerpt

I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific -- especially Wallace's The Malay Archipelago, Bates's Naturalist on the River Amazon, and Spruce's Notes of a Botanist, and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Humboldt's Personal Narrative. It pleased me to think that Bates, Spruce, and Wallace were all crisscrossing in one another's paths, leapfrogging, on the same stretch of the Amazon during the selfsame months of 1849, and to think that all of them were good friends. (They continued to correspond throughout their lives, and Wallace was to publish Spruce's Notes after his death.)

They were all, in a sense, amateurs -- self-educated, self-motivated, not part of an institution -- and they lived, it sometimes seemed to me, in a halcyon world, a sort of Eden, not yet turbulent and troubled by the almost murderous rivalries which were soon to mark an increasingly professionalized world (the sort of rivalries so vividly portrayed in H. G. Wells's story "The Moth").

This sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egotism and a lust for priority and fame, still survives here and there, it seems to me, in certain natural history societies, and amateur societies of astronomers and archaeologists, whose quiet yet essential existences are virtually unknown to the public. It was the sense of such an atmosphere that drew me to the American Fern Society in the first place, and that incited me to go with them on their fern-tour to Oaxaca early in 2000.

And it was the wish to explore this atmosphere which, in part, incited me to keep a journal there. There was much else, of course: my introduction to a people, a country, a culture, a history, of which I knew almost nothing -- this was wonderful, an adventure in itself -- and the fact that all journeys incite me to keep journals. Indeed, I have been keeping them since the age of fourteen, and in the year and a half since my visit to Oaxaca, I have been in Greenland and Cuba, fossil hunting in Australia, and looking at a strange neurological condition in Guadeloupe -- all of these travels have generated journals, too.

None of these journals has any pretension to comprehensiveness or authority; they are light, fragmentary, impressionistic, and, above all, personal.

Why do I keep journals? I do not know. Perhaps primarily to clarify my thoughts, to organize my impressions into a sort of narrative or story, and to do this in "real time," and not in retrospect, or imaginatively transformed, as in an autobiography or novel. I write these journals with no thought of publication (journals which I kept in Canada and Alabama were only published, and that by chance, as articles in Antaeus, thirty years after they were written).

Should I have prettied up this journal, elaborated it, made it more systematic and coherent -- as I was to do with my book-sized Micronesian and "leg" journals -- or left it as written, as with my Canadian and Alabaman ones? I have, in fact, taken an intermediate course, adding a little (on chocolate, rubber, things Mesoamerican), making little excursions of various sorts, but essentially keeping the journal as written. I have not even attempted to give it a proper title. It was Oaxaca Journal in my notebook, and Oaxaca Journal it remains.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    A tourist but not an initiate

    Oliver Sack's description of Oaxaca clearly indicates that he's a scientist and not an alchemist. He got the facts, but he missed the magic of Oaxaca. The journal betrays his observer's stance and his lack of intimacy with the place.The ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla are replete with magic and a musical unity with Nature. However, there wasn't one dulcet description or unheard melody that accompanied the cadence of a paragraph--not even the cadenza of a lone sentence. And yet, perhaps the journal will be held as a superlative example of locative writing. Oaxaca should be experienced in his pages, but I feel that it was only written about.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2002

    Charming Tales of Travels in Mexico

    Dr Sacks has found the pulse of this wonderful place in Mexico. Describing the sites and sounds of another culture so well he transports his readers into this world steeped in history that is 1000s of years old.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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