Oliver Sacks

“Studies, yes,” he wrote in the preface, but “why stories, or cases?” Because, he explained, the understanding of disease cannot be separated from the understanding of the person. They are interwoven, and this has been forgotten in our era of scans, tests, genetics, and procedures. He compared the modern clinical practitioner to the man who mistook his wife for a hat—able to register many details yet still miss the person entirely. “To restore the human subject at the centre—the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject—we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale,”

Oliver Sacks was like no other clinician, or writer. He was drawn to the homes of the sick, the institutions of the most frail and disabled, the company of the unusual and the “abnormal.” He wanted to see humanity in its many variants and to do so in his own, almost anachronistic way—face to face, over time, away from our burgeoning apparatus of computers and algorithms. And, through his writing, he showed us what he saw.

Sacks had asked me whether I’d read Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” I hadn’t, but his letter prompted me to, and I see why he was so drawn to it. It’s about a world in which individuals live isolated in cells, fearful of self-reliance and direct experience, dependent on plate screens, instant messages, and the ministrations of an all-competent Machine. Yet there is also a boy who, like Sacks, saw what was missing. The boy tells his mother, “The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.” ♦