The book reviewed here is ‘Seeing Voices’ by Oliver Sacks. Excerpts from this book were included in a compilation book also – Vintage Sacks (reviewed here). In this book, Sacks explores the world of people who are deaf. He moves from the medicalisation of deafness which considers this as a deficit – a loss of function and transforms this through his words in a vivid, dynamic culturally rich experience. What I found particularly interesting was the first section of the book which was originally written as a book review. Thus Sacks takes the book review to a different level, extending it to an entire section of the book and interweaving his thoughts and diverse readings. Sacks takes questions such as ‘how does deafness affect thinking’ and ‘what difference does this make to communication’ and accumulates evidence from different directions. He describes the case of someone learning to use words for the first time but only understanding their significance after ‘hundreds of thousands of repetitions of words’. Similarly he reflects on language acquisition during the developmental period as being a ‘dialectical leap’
‘the leap from sensation to thought – involves not just talking, but the right sort of talking, a dialogue rich in communicative intent, in mutuality and in the right sort of questioning, if the child is to make this great leap successfully‘
He emphasises the importance of language in the developing mother-child relationship and this reminded me of an earlier paper I had reviewed by Feeley on the developmental period (reviewed here). Is it possible that the rapid proportional increase in brain volume is related to the critical period of language acquisition? Sacks goes onto consider the neurobiology of signing-
‘we see then in Sign, at every level – lexical, grammatical, syntactic – a linguistic use of space‘
Indeed when he considers signing in this way he gives the reader an entirely new perspective on the intracacies and sheer wonder of signing before going on to suggest
‘Perhaps, indeed, there have been two parallel evolutionary streams for spoken and signed forms of language‘
Already there is more than enough here to reflect on, but Sacks ever an empathic observer takes us on a journey through the lives of individuals and communities. Thus in the third section he examines a protest at Gaulladet University where deaf students petition for a deaf president to be elected. Along the way he captures many fascinating insights into the life of deaf students on campus
‘I had to see the wonderful social scene in the student bar, with hands flying in all directions as a hundred separate conversations proceeded‘
As with other books by Sacks, he keeps the central narrative flowing while producing detailed footnotes which contain other points of interest including technical points. Sacks writing is excellent – he is a master of combining the humanities and sciences and communicating this with the reader to produce important works with a timeless quality.
Oliver Sacks. Seeing Voices. Picador. 1991.
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