April 06, 2003

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

A cheering and melancholy book. Well balanced; hard to summarize.

Sacks' family was large and thoroughly scientific - both parents doctors, and many many aunts uncles and cousins were scientists, inventors, chemists, mathematicians, all over the world. His immediate family lived in London in a big Edwardian house, which they seem to have kept full of people: four siblings; the home-surgery needs of his parents; an aunt who lived with them; and many relatives who stayed for a while between peregrinations, of widely varying ages and styles and obsessions. Good thing the house had all those rooms closed off from each other (now horribly unfashionable) to allow inhabitants their peculiarities without getting up each others' noses. Well, some of Oliver's chem experiments got up everyone's noses, but with anough ventilation they weren't lethal.

But this house was in London and Oliver was six when the Blitz began; he was sent away to a hastily invented and unusually cruel boarding school. Four years later, when the school was disbanded, he came back somewhat detached from people but deeply attached to chemistry and numbers. The child's-eye narration of learning chem by recapitulating its history is the bulk of the book.

His much more reticent mentions of the pains of a war childhood, and of not studying what one's parents hope, are clear but secondary. Other issues; Englishness and internationalism, before and after the war, more or less affected by the Sacks' being Jewish. Neighborhoods, different attitudes towards child & material safety, the sensuous appreciation of an intellectual subject.

I want a spinthariscope.

ISBN: 0-375-40448-1 So wrote clew in History (20th c.).

And thus wrote others:
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