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Review: Musicophilia

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

2/5 stars

I received a copy of this book in 2007 when I went to see Oliver Sacks speak at the New Yorker Festival in NYC (pays to be friends with someone who, at the time, worked for the New Yorker magazine!). He was amazing, and kind, and insightful in his characteristic understated, quiet way. Ever since then the book has been sitting on the shelf...

I really enjoyed his collection of "clinical tales," The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I read some time in high school. The variety of different patients, case histories, and neurological disorders represented was fascinating to me, and made me feel like I was reading short articles in Discover Magazine or Scientific American. But I was never quite sure I'd be up for an entire book on just one subject... Unfortunately, it turns out I was right, at least in part. There were sections of Musicophilia that did I find really fascinating - like the man who was struck by lightning and subsequently became obsessed with music, and the discussions about using music as therapy for a variety of disorders (Tourette's, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, amnesia, aphasia, and more). But the overall effect for me was that it felt like the subject matter was stretched too thin. I prefer Sacks' writing when he does a deep dive into multiple patients and disorders, each for 20 pages or so. Clocking in at 350+ pages, I just started to lose interest. The book lacks a central theme or narrative to pull the reader in and through, and the myriad of anecdotes about his patients felt disjointed. Sacks also re-tells the stories of certain patients that he already used in other books, which just feels a little lazy (&/or sloppy).

However, I do wonder if, because I'm not a scientist OR a musician, this subject just didn't speak to me as much. Anyone really interested (and versed) in music would likely find this book much more compelling than I did. There was a fair bit of musical terminology and an assumption of background knowledge that just didn't work for me, so if you have that knowledge, things might fall into place better.

What I like about this book is what I like about Oliver Sacks - his empathy and humor, and the humanity he brings to his scientific explorations. He is curious and sharp-witted, and good at making lofty scientific theories feel more accessible to the "lay-person." (I also love his voice, and wish he'd read the book himself for the audio version!). And while I didn't connect to this book in particular, I've enjoyed other books and interviews, and of course thoroughly enjoyed hearing him speak in person. He always just seemed like a genuinely nice person. Before he passed away in 2015 he said he wished to "live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight." A useful reminder on how we all should use our time.


UP NEXT: The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi

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