One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,” he said.
I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.
My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.
Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.
But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act ‘conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.
I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.
Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).
But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.
We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.
Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.
And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.