Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

Seeing VoicesI am currently knee-deep in Oliver Sacks’ autobiography (as it were) and loving it – and being rather surprised by it – but that will all be revealed in the next issue of Shiny New Books. For now, I thought I should quickly write about the latest Sacks I’ve read before I forget, and before it gets tangled up in my head with his autobiography. The book is Seeing Voices, and was first published in 1989. It deals with deafness and language, essentially – looking at the development of sign language, whether it ‘counts’ as a real language, and how the deaf and hard of hearing have been treated over the past century or so.

This might be quite a short review, because it is my least favourite Sacks book to date – and I am such a cheerleader for his work that I don’t want to dwell on one that (to my mind) didn’t live up to HallucinationsThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatThe Mind’s Eye, and The Island of the Colourblind. And possibly all the others that I’ve yet to read, most of which are waiting on my shelves.

The irony is that sign language and the senses are things I’m really interested in. Losing, compensating, or confusing senses are topics I find fascinating. And there are certainly sections of Seeing Voices that did fascinate me. Let’s look at them first. Primarily, the protests at Gallaudet University, then (and possibly still) the world’s only liberal arts college for deaf and hard of hearing. These protests came after the election of a new president (from a shortlist of hearing and hard of hearing candidates) ended up with a hearing president; the students and some of the staff went on protest, demanding that they be represented by somebody who knew what it was like to be deaf.

This request doesn’t seem at all outlandish now (although may rear issues of ‘positive’ discrimination; that’s another story), but at the time it was a big step forward in terms of helping people recognise that people who could not hear were still people – intelligent, capable, leadership-demonstrating people at that. Sacks is seldom better than when he feels impassioned on behalf of others who have been downtrodden or underestimated – and he writes in support of those protesters. Elsewhere in the book, more passionately still, he writes about those schools that decided deaf children should learn to speak audibly rather than learn sign language – and the deprivation of communication this forced upon generations of children.

If all of this was great, and classic Oliver, then what didn’t I love so much? Well, as other reviewers have noted in 1989 and since, Seeing Voices is aimed at a rather more scholarly audience than Sacks’ other works. Which is not to say that it’s academic writing; it is still closer to popular science than to a conference paper. But it is the least accessible of the books I’ve read, and I found his focus on scientific and philosophical terminology, not to mention hundreds of endnotes (which take up almost half the book) rather off-putting. Perhaps this is because Sacks mostly deals with theories and histories in Seeing Voices? He is far more captivating when dealing with individuals – whether patients, friends, or Sacks himself.

So, there was a lot of interest here – but the book mostly brings out more of Sacks’ scientific side than his compassion or his storytelling ability; the two attributes that make him such a phenomenal and significant writer, in my opinion. Alternatively, this may make Seeing Voices more appealing to some.

And I have to finish off with this sentence, which amused me:

To be the parents of a deaf child, or of twins, or of a blind child, or of a prodigy, demands a special resilience and resourcefulness.

10 thoughts on “Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:44 pm
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      I think they’ve not spotted this quotation yet – they’ve not been in touch!

  • May 17, 2015 at 8:51 pm
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    I just added this to my summer reading stack last night (it’s been on the TBR shelf for a few years) – nice to be forewarned about the more academic writing.

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:43 pm
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      It’s still Sacks, so it’s not unreadable by any means – but maybe better warned than not! Let me know what you think, Susan.

  • May 18, 2015 at 3:25 am
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    I want to read his autobiography and look forward to your review of it.

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:43 pm
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      Just finished it – it’s v.g. indeed!

  • May 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm
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    Hehe! I don’t think I’ve ever read this one, actually. Hm. I’m looking forward to reading his autobiography although I might wait a while as I know he’s so poorly now and I don’t want to be reading it when … you know.

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:41 pm
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      I actually wanted to make sure I read it quickly, because I want to enjoy it while he’s still alive and being his wonderful self. I’m sure I’ll re-read another time (hopefully a long time from now) with a different lens.

  • May 18, 2015 at 7:31 pm
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    I didn’t know he’d written about deaf culture! Even if it’s not his best book, I’d be interested to see what he had to say — the ABC Family show Switched at Birth talks about deaf culture a lot, and it’s just fascinating.

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:39 pm
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      Intriguing! You should definitely still check it out, yes, although if you’ve not read Hallucinations then that is the one I would press upon EVERYONE. It’s just so good.

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