I Love Oliver Sacks

     Dr. Oliver Sacks, who revealed Thursday that he has terminal cancer, is a rare human being whose accomplishments, and they are many, spring from the fact that he is a wonderful man.
     I will tell you how I know this, but the statement needs some explaining.
     It is difficult in our society to find people of great accomplishments who are also decent people, through and through. Politics, sports, board rooms or Wall Street? Ahem.
     It’s never been true in the arts. Aside from Kurt Vonnegut, I can’t think of an American writer I’d like to have as a next-door neighbor. Painters, so far as I can tell, are all crazy. I believe many great scientists are fine people, but we don’t know who they are until they win a Nobel Prize. Perhaps working in their labs out of the public eye helps them remain so.
     Dr. Sacks gained fame as the author of “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” He is a world-class neurologist, a world-class writer, and a world-class human being. Here’s how I know.
     I read Sacks’ book “Musicophilia” the day it was published in 2007. At the time I was proofreading my own book on Beethoven, and I managed to cram in a few footnotes citing “Musicophilia.” One of my chapters was about music and synaesthesia, a subject of interest to Sacks, so I sent him that chapter.
     He replied with a very kind letter and asked for more. So I sent him the galley proofs – enlarged, because Dr. Sacks was going blind. He replied again, and we had a nice little correspondence going, which I felt obliged to cut off because I thought I was taking up too much of his time.
     Now, here’s the thing: All of Dr. Sacks’ letters had been typed on an ancient manual typewriter – a Royal, I believe – and corrected by hand in pen, in a large, scrawling hand. They were the most charming letters I have received in my life. They looked as though they had been written by a 5-year-old Zeus.
     Each letter came back so fast that I am sure Dr. Sacks did not let a day go by before responding to me – a stranger.
     The singer Roseanne Cash said the same thing in an interview on Terri Gross’s NPR show “Fresh Air.” Cash too got immediate, personal attention from Dr. Sacks after a simple inquiry about her voice. She felt what I do: that Dr. Sacks was kind, and attentive, and seemed to have no worries in the world except how to help her.
     The key to this lies in Sacks’ 1984 book, “A Leg to Stand On.” In it, he tells of how he broke his leg in the Alps and had to crawl off the mountain to save his own life. He was sent to a hospital in his native England, where, Sacks wrote, he received medical care so unfeeling, so condescending, that he vowed he would never treat a patient like that in his life.
     I am sure he didn’t.
     I will be sorry to see the good doctor go. His Thursday column in The New York Times is so cheerful, so full of gratitude and wide learning it is hard to believe he is writing about his own impending death.
     Dr. Sacks is kind, and interested in people. This kindness, and his real interest in other people’s problems, along with his wonderful intelligence, learning and powers of observation, made the good doctor into what he is: an all-too rare example, it seems to me, of why the human race is worth it.

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