Week 2: A comparative analysis of Oliver Sacks and Joan Didion



I have calculated that at the end of week 2 I am at 525 pages total. Not bad! I am pretty happy with my approach and the progress so far.

Last weekend I went to the library book sale and picked up The Year of Magical Thinking. I have heard all sorts of good stuff and have read pieces around the internet but never the actual thing– for 1$ I figured it was a good addition! I learned about Oliver Sacks’s first posthumous book, The River of Consciousness somewhere I can’t recall, but was lucky enough to find at the library under new releases.

For no particular reason, after finishing Any Day Now I started reading these simultaneously and was pleasantly entertained by the crossover between these two, perhaps seemingly disparate, reads.

Magical Thinking is about the loss of Didion’s husband, John, and the illness (what I know so far) of her daughter. When I looked at the cover and noticed the blue J O H N, I nearly cried. Her grief is powerful and real– the reading is easy, she is a good storyteller. I am halfway through and could probably finish tonight if my eyes didn’t feel so dang tired. (I had to make neighbor Dave his birthday cake today– a Black Forest Cake– 4 layers, 6 hours, buttercream– the works. He’s only 74, just a spring chicken. His two adult children and wife joined us for dessert before dinner– they just left a few moments ago for the dinner part of the evening.)

Meanwhile, Sacks is dead and reading his voice knowing he’s gone feels strange and yet so special, too. He is such a powerful writer– if you haven’t read anything by him and are not necessarily turned on generally by nonfiction — he’s a medical doctor — I would recommend checking out Gratitude. I read it as a swap from Kate and it is short + amazing.

Anyway, in River Sacks spends time explaining concepts related to evolution and things — he begins with an exploration of Darwin’s lesser studied work as a botanist. Darwin explored worm behavior and all sorts of plant or let’s say non mammal study. People often report this more from the perspective of his “hobby” instead of a serious effort– this is misinformed. Darwin very much considered the work central to his understanding and discovery around evolution. What living thing  better to study than plants?

This got me thinking that Emily Dickinson was around at a similar time– also biographically represented as a woman who liked to garden and draw flowers– not the dedicated botanist she really was. It frustrates me when people cough that part of her life up to “being a woman of the times.” #poetryproblems

Anyway– that was fun to think about.

Then, Sacks started talking about disordered time– people with Tourette’s or other neurological maladies that distort the perception of time — and by distort I mean, simply distorted in relative comparison to perhaps you or me– the “distortion” is not distortion at all to the individual living it. He quotes Dostoevsky who had epileptic seizures as saying that the 30 seconds before he seized were the most clear and profound moments of his life– he felt perfect and timeless.  These experiences are widely documented and reported– Sacks, as a medical doctor, treated many such individuals.

Didion also talks about the distortion of time in Magical Thinking. After her husband dies– so much changes so quickly and yet many things remain the same. The illness of her daughter is cataloged by weeks in the book– she spends a lot of time talking about the concept of time– or speed– which is what Sacks is writing about, too, only from the perspective of evolution.

It feels like I have stumbled into a comparative literature of sorts. What a pleasant surprise born from a couple of visits to the public library.

5 comments on “Week 2: A comparative analysis of Oliver Sacks and Joan Didion”

  1. I have read ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ and not this Oliver Sacks book, but some others of his, so I celebrate this comparison. Have you read his memoir, ‘On the Move?’ Good stuff in there about his life as a writer. I think you’d like it.

    Speaking of #poetry problems, I’ve started reading ‘Women of the Beat Generation’ by Barbara Knight, with a foreword by Anne Waldman. Writers, artists and muses “at the heart of a revolution” who aren’t well-known.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have read Knight’s book– as a huge fan of the Beats it put a lot in perspective for me– I still value their writing, history and work but I do not romanticize them-

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, I think romanticizes them just creates another “poetry problem” for them.


    2. And PS- in continuing my comparison between Didion and Sacks, today Sacks was talking about memory and the fallibility of it — another strong correlate to Magical Thinking !


  2. There’s a documentary about Joan Didion on Netflix, ‘The Center Will Not Hold.’ You might find it an interesting compliment to your reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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