Oliver Sacks on Libraries
In praise of intellectual freedom, community, and the ecstasy of serendipitous discovery.
By Maria Popova
“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as she celebrated the sacredness of public libraries. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou exulted in reflecting on how a library saved her life. It was thanks to the library that James Baldwin read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians.
Among the titans of mind and spirit shaped and saved by libraries was the great neurologist, author, and voracious reader Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
In a short essay titled “Libraries,” found in the bittersweet posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), Sacks recalls his childhood in England with the unsentimental sweetness that makes his autobiographical writings so delicious:
The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favorite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.
But the ur-library, for me, was our local public library, the Willesden library. There I spent many of the happiest hours of my growing-up years — our house was a five-minute walk from the library — and it was there I received my real education.
Like many of us, Sacks found his natural curiosity unstimulated, blunted even, by the industrial model of education into which he was thrust. At the library, where he was master of his own time and mind, he found the antidote — the living substance of learning without the ill-fitting structure of schooling:
On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive — I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library — and all the libraries that came later — I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free — free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.
But it was at the majestic Oxford libraries that his belonging in place and time came fully abloom in the landscape of literature:
It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.
While Sacks found at the library a locus of liberation via self-directed learning, he also found the seeming opposite — a surprising sense of community, which became a lovely complement to his newfound intellectual autonomy:
Though the library was quiet, whispered conversations might start in the stacks — two of you, perhaps, were searching for the same old book, the same bound volumes of Brain from 1890 — and conversations could lead to friendships. All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books — along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves — was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.
When Sacks moved to New York City in 1965 and began working on his first book — the epoch-making Migraine, which not only revolutionized our understanding of one of the mind’s most mystifying frontiers but ushered in a whole new aesthetic of lyrical writing about medicine — the library became his escape from the notorious oppressions and privations of a young person’s first New York shoebox:
At that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of the refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.
I have often wondered and worried about what rapturous rewards of such serendipitous discovery we relinquish when we surrender to search, that double-edged glory of the Internet. We may have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but they are still appendages of our consciously informed intent — we reach for what we know to reach for. It is an odd question I live with daily, suspended and often sundered between these two strands of knowledge: Brain Pickings exists in the world of the Internet, but draws on the world of “unexpected treasures” found on bookshelves, unlooked for. My experience of it — of how I read what I read and how I write about it — is largely one of serendipitous discovery. It mirrors my childhood experience of pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf of my grandmother’s formidable library in Bulgaria, opening to a random page, learning about something I did not know to wonder about until I discovered it, then telling my parents about it with ecstatic enthusiasm. Sacks experienced this intimately — it was amid the stacks the library that he discovered Edward Liveing’s obscure 1873 book Megrim, which inspired him to write Migraine. Perhaps he never used a computer, not even as he continued to write prolifically into the twenty-first century, not out of some time-stilted Luddism but because he resisted, passionately and to the hilt, the relinquishing of this ecstasy of discovery.
Everything in Its Place is a wondrous read in its entirety, irradiating Sacks’s kaleidoscopic curiosity across subjects as varied as the joy of swimming, the pains of first love, the glories of the gingko tree, the surreal turns the mind takes under various rare neurological conditions, and the relationship between gardens and creativity. Complement this particular portion with an illustrated love letter to books by some of the greatest minds of our time, benefiting the public library system, then revisit Sacks on the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, his formative reading list of 121 favorite books, the remarkable story of how he saved his own life by reciting poetry, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.
Published May 1, 2019