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on 2 December 2010
This book had sat on my shelf, waiting to be read for a couple of years before I decided to pick it up. I was eventually persuaded to give it a go having read a memoir of the musician Edwyn Collins' struggle back to health following two near fatal strokes. (Falling and Laughing, Grace Maxwell) I had felt a bit intimidated by the density of the book, indeed it took me a month to read. But I need not have worried. It is accessible with truly remarkable stories of human strength and dignity and the awesome power of music. He writes movingly and with clarity, about his patients and correspondents. Many suffering from dementia or temporary conditions including musical halucinations. It made me feel justified in my spending too much time listening to and buying music - it is bolstering my brain! It has also made me reflect on the sophistication of the brain and perhaps how much we are yet to discover about our grey cells.
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on 28 January 2009
I've heard of Oliver Sacks although this is the first book of his I have read. I agree with the reviewer who feels there just isn't enough to sustain 400-odd pages of interest here. The writing style is repetitive and dry and, unusually for me, I found myself skimming page after page of never-ending case studies of patients who had some kind of brain trauma yet retain musical ability. There are also far, far too many footnotes - I can only read in one direction at once.

I'm a scientist and I'm used to reading case studies and to be fair, there is little known about the underlying mechanisms of the brain trauma that Sacks describes, but even so, it still feels more like a list of patients' symptoms than an entertaining read and I kept wondering when he was going to get to any sort of point. Certain of the sections, e.g. on perfect pitch, were somewhat absorbing but that in no way made up for the other 300 pages of drag.

I went into this book expecting and wanting to like it, but it was just a grind to get through it. A friend at book club, who is a big Sacks fan, rated this book highly in comparison to his other works and for this reason, this will be my first and last dalliance with Sacks' writing.
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on 2 July 2008
I am usually a fan of Oliver Sacks but this is a disappointing book. I am about halfway through and on the verge of putting it down, although will perservere as it's a fast read (ie. lightweight and not amazingly thought-provoking). It just reads, as someone else said, more like a series of magazine articles, with each chapter ("article") simply being a list of half a dozen or so interesting cases, but without much analysis of the whys and wherefores. Lightweight, unsatisfying and not up to his usual standards. Pass.
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on 6 January 2009
It has taken me nearly six weeks to wade through only the first third of this marathon of almost 400 pages. And the reason? I can only take Sacks' writing style, which is almost Victorian in nature, in small doses. Each time I pick up the book again, I wonder if the marker has been misplaced, since similar anecdotal stories seem to make up the entire literary content. It is a bit like reading later Aldous Huxley; a rambling series of musings, arbitrarily subdivided by chapter headings. In describing the interactions between music and "the brain", Sacks does not provide anything which is not already known, and often experienced, by many people and I am left wondering what is the point of this book. It could certainly have been written in half its current length. It is of note that the list of individual acknowledgements at the back of the book amount to almost 250 names, which is almost a work in itself. I might add that I found this list almost as interesting as the rest of the book!
I will persevere with this tome for a couple more weeks, but I doubt if I will ever finish it.
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on 2 January 2009
Oliver Sacks tells wonderful stories about how patients with severe brain dysfunctions manage to recover their faculties through new treatments of various kinds, and his previous books, notably Awakenings and The Man who Mistake His Wife for a Hat made Sacks famous for their revalatory and interesting nature.

This one, unfortunately, only goes part way to exploring the unusual appreciation that humans have for music, and goes too far in documenting cases of patients from the 1800s who lost all their faculties due to some sort of brain trauma, yet were able to retain their singing, instrument playing or musical appreciation capabilities.

Interesting topics such as synesthesia and perfect pitch are explored, but the book focuses almost entirely on the effect of either clasical music or basic traditional songs on people, and it does so by rendering citation after citation - many of them Sacks' own publications - and also has many pages where the footnotes compete for dominance with the main text.

Where is the impact of modern popular music on people? There is a brief reference to what Sacks calls "brainworms" (otherwise known as jingles), that can infuriate one for days and nights, but scant commentary on what - aside from well tested marketing campaigns - makes certain music so appealing to people.

Towards the end of the book, I tired of the countless permutations of syndromes in which, guess what, musicality survives where all other interaction fails, but by then I wasn't being told anything new or interesting.

A shame, since an up to date volume on this subject, based on a large body of new research, would be most interesting.
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Musicophilia made me realize how others perceive music. It was a shock. I assumed that everyone experienced music the same way. Wrong!

Do you ever ask anyone what happens when they hear music? I didn't before I read this book. Now I plan to ask everyone.

Dr. Sacks has the kind of fine writing style and awareness of music that makes his tales seem as appealing as the cases that Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote about. As Dr. Sacks pointed out, Dr. Freud didn't care for music so that gentleman failed to investigate and report on many of the phenomena in this book.

We don't exactly know why the mind and body interact with music in the ways that they do. Part is undoubtedly heredity. Part is undoubtedly due to exposure to musical influences. Some may relate to the language spoken in the home. Difficulties with seeing may also be an influence. Injuries to the body and brain can play a large role. Dr. Sacks does a masterly job of using case after case to explore one aspect or another of these dimensions so that a complex picture emerges that's even more remarkable than the brain processes involved in reading.

One of the biggest surprises in the book is that musical talent seems to be inhibited by some parts of the brain. In similar way, music can also inhibit some other brain functions that we would like to get rid of.

I had always wondered about those with perfect pitch, and the book explores that. There are also wonderful sections on other seemingly inherited musical abilities.

Dr. Sacks adds a lot of perspective to the history of music by making observations about various composers and the way that their compositions reflect certain musical abilities than others while explaining how the mental processes are different. Today, we can map the brain's activation in order to get clues about why certain behaviors are possible. That final perspective adds a lot to the case histories.

If you are like me, you'll find some of the cases to be heart-wrenching. I was comforted a bit to realize that music made those sad lives better so there's reason to rejoice in that sense.

So what was my big personal discovery? When I listen to classical music of any kind, I can choreograph a ballet along with costumes, sets, and props to go along with the music that I see in color when I close my eyes . . . even if the music has never been used for ballet. I didn't realize that others usually don't do that. What a wonder!
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on 28 March 2013
Oliver Sacks' best book is Man who mistook his wife for a hat.

The documentary to this book is a lot better than the book, I feel as though Prof. Sacks wrote this book just for the sake of writing and not for the sake of entertainment...
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on 1 August 2013
I've always been fascinated by the power of music and long to understand how that comes about. The truth is we still don't really know much about it but this book takes us a few steps down the line and certainly gives vivid and compelling case histories and descriptions.
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on 6 August 2013
There is much to admire here. The book is full of intriguing stories of individuals who have suffered some sort of brain damage or abnormality, and how this is manifested in their response to music.

The stories are interesting for what they tell us about all humans, rather than what they tell us about the suffering individuals themselves.

Sacks makes an excellent case for the argument that music is very deeply embedded in our psyche, and against the 'auditory cheesecake' theory of Steven Pinker. I was especially impressed by the passages describing how humans better store data when it is attached to a melody, and how singing can help people speak, overcome stutters or movement disabilities.

The book was very well written and easy to read. It kept the interest throughout.

The only negative I see is that the entire book consists of a continual flow of case studies. Sacks never rises above these to put together his own arguments in a fully coherent way.

Nonethless, recommended.
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on 31 March 2013
Brilliant and most fascinating book as, indeed, are all of Oliver Sachs's works.
Each day research from a variety of scientific disciplines increases our sense of wonderment at the brain. It is clearly much more than an organic computer and the significance of music illustrates the existence of an understanding yet to be attained. We have a soul.
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