Awakenings (1973, rev. ed. 1990)
Paperback, Vintage Books, ISBN 0-375-70405-1
The classic account of survivors of the encephalitic lethargica and their return to the world after decades of “sleep.” This book was the inspiration for the 1990 film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.
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Awakenings is the remarkable account of a group of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. Frozen in a decades-long sleep, these men and women were given up as hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive, “awakening” effect. Dr. Sacks recounts the moving case histories of these individuals, the stories of their lives, and the extraordinary transformations they underwent with treatment. This book, which W. H. Auden called “a masterpiece,” is a passionate exploration of the most general questions of health, disease, suffering, care, and the human condition.
The revised 1990 edition includes new essays on the making of several dramatic adaptations of Awakenings, including Harold Pinter’s play, “A Kind of Alaska,” and the feature film, “Awakenings,” starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
Dr. Sacks on Awakenings:
“Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have even know, as I encountered, lived with, these patients in a Bronx hospital, some of whom had been transfixed, motionless, in a sort of trance, for decades. Migraine was still in the medical canon, but here I took off in all directions–with allegory, philosophy, poetry, you name it.”
Praise for Awakenings:
“Experiences so strange that they are difficult to conceive are not limited to travels up the Amazon or to the Moon, but can occur within the confines of the human head…This long sleep and sudden awakening to a strange new world…though so alien, have an immediate power to grip the imagination. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that through this book we live with the dead, brought back from the past…The book is an extraordinary compound of clinical observation and, one feels, deep understanding of the plight of these people…One senses in the author a passion to communicate his discoveries with all the power of his intellect, knowledge and deep compassion–so that we may “awake.'”
– Richard Gregory, The Listener
“This book is a neurologist’s account of his experience with a so-called miracle drug from the epidemic of sleeping sickness which swept the world in the 1920s. Dr. Sacks writes beautifully and with exceptional subtlety and penetration into both the state of mind of his patients and the nature of illness in general….Compulsively readable…a brilliant and humane book.”
– A. Alvarez, Observer
“It makes you aware of the knife-edge we live on.”
– Doris Lessing
“This doctor’s report is written in a prose of such beauty that you might well look in vain for its equal among living practitioners of belles lettres.”
– Frank Kermode, Daily Telegraph