book review: oaxaca journal

November 17, 2005

in Books

CatbooksOliver Sacks, a neurologist, has written some fantastic books. Most notable (my favorites) are his compelling accounts of people with unusual neurological disorders: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The Island of the Colorblind, and Awakenings (made into the movie starring Robin Willliams). Sacks is a gifted writer. These books are intriguing not only because of their unusual subject matter, but because Sacks can explain the medical science behind them clearly, and, even better, conveys his compassion for the human beings that have these conditions, and what we can learn about our own lives through their stories.

Oaxaca Journal is a departure from these books. It’s a diary of a week-long trip he took to Oaxaca, Mexico with the American Fern Society.  Other trip participants are more keen botanists, and Sacks seems to operate more on the periphery, although the text is loaded with the names of many fern species they encountered; many are illustrated by simple pen-and-ink drawings.

As expected, the best parts of the book for me were when Sacks examined local culture. As he notes early in the book, “How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one’s own is.”  This is a philosophy I embrace, but I was a little disappointed that Sacks did not go into the depth I might have expected, based on the insight he displayed in previous books.

Oaxaca Journal was, in fact, a pretty light read.  You’ll learn something of Oaxaca (the description of the truly gigantic Tule tree in Santa Maria del Tule is enough to make me want to go there), and if you are into ferns or botany, you’ll find the book especially enjoyable. But you won’t find the same attention to detail, philosophical dissection, or intellectual curiosity that is a hallmark of Sacks’ previous work. Sacks is only 72, but he comes off as a bit tired in Oaxaca Journal.  I hope he has more of the “old stuff” still left in him.

Trix November 19, 2005 at 9:15 am

Good to read a trusted review. I loved his other books so much that I was wary of this departure – maybe one for the library list.

Janet Egan December 23, 2005 at 5:35 pm

Good review. You may be interested to know that the southernmost stand of Douglas fir, which Sacks mentions in the book, was discovered by Zsolt Debreczy from the International Dendrological Research Institute and Istvan Racz from the Hungarian Museum of Natural History. They're coming out with an amazing book about conifers all over the world — their conservation status, best habitat, botanical characters, and all — due out in early 2006. You can check it out at

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