Friday, January 2, 2009

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

In some ways I don't feel fit to review this book. I could never do it justice, which I suppose says something in itself. It is enormous, in some ways as large as the entire history of chemistry itself. It is also a portrait of one man's very difficult, lonely, eccentric and also wonderful childhood, and in places is almost frighteningly intimate. It's a bit of a paradox, because in some ways it seems so huge, and in others it seems so inadequately small, and the reader gradually becomes aware of just what could have been written, and how large that is. I think that's a fitting feeling for a memoir to have.

It's not that the book aspires to be grand, or that it is pretentious in any way. It's tremendously humble. It's also somewhat painfully incomplete without its Afterword, and I think the Acknowledgements finish the book better than the last chapter did. The "ending" is as abrupt as a surprise brick wall.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood is a thick, chewy book that despite its thickness and its chewiness is an infinitely easy read. The writing is eminently accessible. It offers only glimpses into what must have been a truly remarkable family, and reads like a tribute to many of the Sacks and the Landaus as much as a memoir. The book itself is somewhat fragmentary, sewn together with a long and meandering thread of the history of chemistry and sometimes, but mostly not, seems like more of a history of chemistry itself than an autobiographical piece by a neurologist. But it was a history of chemistry that was accessible enough that I began to remember how fascinating I used to find chemistry myself, before school killed it for me. It makes me sad that the home chemistry lab is basically a relic of the past. I think it's probably wrong that I secretly think the kid who recently blew off his fingers trying to make a rocket in his garage is awesome. Most parents wouldn't let their kids anywhere near anything that might possibly be a little bit dangerous -- Sacks, on the other hand, had uranium compounds in his lab as a boy of twelve.

There are parts of this book that are heartbreaking. Sacks touches on -- though never dwells on -- the abuse he suffered at a residential school during WWII, and the abuse and bullying that apparently literally drove his older brother mad. Though understated, the reader gets the deep sense of how dreadfully lonely Sacks must have been at points in his childhood, battered by circumstances beyond his control. But for Sacks, as a boy, there were also supportive, caring, highly intelligent adults and siblings. And there was chemistry. There was the history of chemistry and the giants of discovery (an entire chapter is devoted to Humphrey Davy, for example, who I had only vaguely heard of before), and there are also the actual elements and experiments and apparatuses themselves, each described in enthusiastic, awe-filled detail. The book reads like a love letter to chemistry.

The fact that I did enjoy it as much as I did is a testament to Oliver Sacks as a talented and very human writer. I haven't decided which of Oaxaca Journals, The Island of the Colorblind, An Anthropologist on Mars, or Musicophilia I should read next. Or any of his others. Probably the first I get my hands on.


Anonymous said...

My mother quite liked Oaxaca Journals, I think you should read that next. Ferns: you cannot go wrong.

Anonymous said...

I love finding books that are writer-ly by people who aren't writers, per se. It's always a wonderful treat :)

Unknown said...

Yes, and they can be so fascinating, especially if they are writing about something they clearly love. In that vein, I have indeed picked up Oaxaca Journals. It is apparently published as part of a series by National Geographic Directions, where writers write books about a place. So David Mamet, for example, writes about Vermont, and Barry Unsworth writes about Crete. I might try to pick up a couple of them.