My hero: Oliver Sacks
He has been a patient, too, and is wise enough to know he cannot leave himself out of the story
by Hilary Mantel
The Guardian, Friday 8 February 2013 13.31 GMT
"Which book changed your life?" is a question it's tempting to answer with a shrug; the truth is, books can seldom do that by themselves. But in 1970, before he was a household name, Oliver Sacks wrote a book called Migraine. More modest and more technical than his big hits – Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – the book is still remarkable in its shrewd perceptions and breadth of reference. It changed my life, and I dare say that of thousands of other sufferers, by increasing my knowledge of this strange condition. And for a patient, knowledge is power.
Everything Sacks writes has his unique stamp. Clinical acumen combines with understanding of people. Scientific precision is wedded to a spirit of optimism and benevolence. Like Freud before him, he has elevated the case history into literature. But as a neurologist, he has not had to abandon hard science to do it. We trust him because of his practicality, his hands-on experience, as well as the fact that he writes with such clarity about the human body and the human condition. He observes, but he is not afraid of empathy. Describing himself as a "neuroanthropologist", he voyages into the unknown territory inside our heads. Informed by 25 years of hospital experience, he sees the soul within the symptoms. He has been a patient, too, and he is wise enough to know he cannot leave himself out of the story.
Perhaps my favourite of his books is An Anthropologist on Mars, "tales of survival" that illustrate the resilience of the body and brain, our capacity to adapt and renew ourselves. He never makes the reader feel like a voyeur; his approach is subtle, and what emerges from all his work is his respect for his subjects. He seems to love human beings, which is sometimes a hard feat to sustain. He doesn't love humanity in the abstract, but admires and learns from each individual, however damaged. He reminds us that though medicine is a science, healing is an art.