Oliver Sacks Musicophilia

A few months ago the Litpop Book Club read Nick Coleman’s book The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss – a music journalist’s memoir about the impact of hearing loss on his passion for music. So we were intrigued to see Nick’s story reappear in a postscript to the revised edition of Oliver Sacks collection of essays Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007). The British born but New York based neurologist is perhaps best known for his unforgettably titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – one of a series of collections of case histories which explore the extraordinary variety of human perception. In this collection Sacks turns his attention to music and we were fascinated by the wide range of topics which the essays explore, captured in some memorable titles – from “Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes” to “In Living Stereo: Why We have Two Ears”. The collection opens dramatically with an account of a man literally struck by lightening – and who develops an all-consuming, and entirely unprecedented, passion for music. If this man is granted an extraordinary gift by this ‘bolt from the blue’ others are devastated by sudden loses or distortions, much like the one recounted by Coleman. These stories raised some interesting, and sometimes discomforting, questions for a book club for music lovers – our musical tastes are such a cherished part of who we feel we are, but this book reminded us of how dependent our experience of music is on the delicate workings of the ear and the complex wiring of the brain. But we felt this book served an important purpose by raising awareness of the diverse forms that human hearing can take – and by placing the experience of what, in medical contexts, might be called ‘symptoms’ within the spectrum of everyday life. It was interesting to read this book in the context of the many different life histories – both fictional and autobiographical – which the book club has explored. Some readers felt that as ‘stories’ these case histories sometimes fell short – lacking as they did the beginning, middle and end of a conventional narrative. But others found something strangely reassuring about these fragments of life – taken together they all told a similar story: the enduring story of the human capacity to adapt to change.

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