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Seeing Voices

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  4,587 ratings  ·  378 reviews
Like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, this is a fascinating voyage into a strange and wonderful land, a provocative meditation on communication, biology, adaptation, and culture.  In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks turns his attention to the subject of deafness, and the result is a deeply felt portrait of a minority struggling for recognition and respect--a minority wit ...more
Paperback, 222 pages
Published November 28th 2000 by Vintage (first published 1989)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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I have been working a fair amount the last year with software that produces signed language - so I had to read this book, where Oliver Sacks presents his take on the strange and wonderful world of Deaf culture. I don't think it's his most objective piece of work, but it's impossible to be objective in the face of the monstrous injustice that has been inflicted on Deaf society. Even today, many people I talk to are not aware that signed languages are just as much "real" languages as English or Fr ...more
Jan 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
When I was a child my cousin asked me if I would rather be blind or deaf. I didn't hesitate, I would much rather be deaf, I thought - a world of perpetual darkness was to be avoided at all costs.

To be honest, I never really thought about this question again until reading this book. I had no idea what costs deafness can bring with it.

Sacks go through many of these costs and explains, in remarkably simple language, some of the 'age dependent' structures that form our minds - how certain rules of l
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology
“We are remarkably ignorant about deafness…Ignorant and indifferent.” I would definitely agree that I was relatively ignorant about deafness, probably because I didn’t know any deaf people until some months ago. Making the acquaintance of a young deaf man made me really curious about deaf people in general. This book taught me so much, it was truly enlightening.I think it should be read by everyone. Some of the stories about the deaf population's struggle for acceptance were very powerful and po ...more
Seeing Voices was originally published in 1989. That was a big in-between year for the deaf. In 1988 Gallaudet students successfully pushed for a deaf president of the university. And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act would be signed into law.

As for me, in 1989 I was three years old. I had not yet been diagnosed with my own hearing loss. I had no idea who Oliver Sacks was, what "deafness" means, where Gallaudet is, or what American Sign Language is. Two years later my worried parents
Apr 07, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, science
Oliver Sacks is a fantastic writer; thus, this book is a fascinating read. The reason it got only 3 stars from me is because he did not write this book yesterday... he wrote it more than 20 years ago. I'm a speech therapist, and I work with many children who are deaf or hard of hearing in a school setting. So much of this book is now dated - the technology, the ideas, the arguments about deaf culture - even the words he uses to describe people who are deaf are outdated. Cochlear implants didn't ...more
Jun 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'm glad a friend of mine recommended me this book, because before reading it, I knew almost nothing about deafness. As a matter of fact, I hadn't really given much thought about it in my life, since speech is something so natural in our lives.

In its first two parts, The Deaf World and Thinking in Sign, Oliver Sacks talks about Sign, explaining in an accessible way, its origins and some of its neurophysiological characteristics - neuroplasticity and language development are also recurrent theme
Will Ansbacher
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Another of Sacks’s interesting forays, this time into the world of the profoundly deaf. Sacks is a great guide because he leaps into any previously unknown topic (it was to him, too) with such enthusiasm, insight and lack of bias.

I had no idea that Sign languages - like ASL - were so complex, so “4-dimensional” (compared to the single time dimension of speech), so grammatically alien compared to spoken languages; no idea that Sign would arise spontaneously between deaf parents and infants; no i
Kaethe Douglas
The first two sections are a bit of a slog. Sacks goes into the history of educating deaf people, and he veers off all over the place into footnotes that are neither amusing nor informative. Despite that, he does manage to put the history of Sign and boarding schools for the deaf into both a historical and international context. To summarize, having successfully educated many people with Sign, demonstrating that deaf does not equal dumb in any sense, that hundred years of success was completely ...more
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: stem
The contents of this short book should be common knowledge, but to me they were as new as they were astonishing, enraging, exciting. Oliver Sacks admits that he is an outsider to the topic, and I hope his reputation will encourage many to pick up this volume on trust as I did, and be inspired to do something, at least to read further.

To be born deaf, Sacks points out, is potentially devastating, because the deaf child can't hear people talking and therefore can't learn speech, and is thus depriv
Feb 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2014
This book is 25 years old, and while I'm certain there are more recent books on the topic of deafness, this one is still worth reading. It's not just about deafness, but about language, and how language shapes our brains, and how important language is to developing as a person. In just 150 pages, Oliver Sacks managed to blow my mind with things which had never occurred to me before. ...more
Apr 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I first read this book in 1992, and have re-read it several times as my prelingually Deaf daughter has grown up. In many ways it is an odd book--A warm, wonderfully personal first section; a cold, complex scientifically explanatory middle section; and a passionate ending section. I disagree with the criticism that the book is "dated". All books are "dated" the moment they are published; there have been developments in the world of the Deaf, but nothing that changes the nature of communication or ...more
Nov 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
How I made it this long before reading Olive Sacks I'll never know, but "Seeing Voices" is an incredible work of scientific and cultural commentary.

Sacks wrote "Seeing Voices" in the 90s immediately following the movement for deaf rights and the book reflects this new cultural idea that deafness shouldn't be pathologized, it should be celebrated for its richness in culture and history. Separated into three parts, the first part gives a historical recounting of deafness and goes into detail about
Jul 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A small book that packs a punch. The author is a neurologist and so much of his book (specifically the chapter Thinking in Sign)covers how language is developed from an infant on in someone hearing and then how language is acquired by someone deaf. This chapter is only 60 pages long, but it took me over a week before I could move on. I reread several pages and a mere sentence held so much meaning and could reveal so much to me that I actually found myself in a study mode craving to learn more. T ...more
Jul 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
In my own social and professional contacts, I have not yet met a deaf person nor known anyone using Sign language. Before reading this book, if asked directly about Sign, I would venture to guess that it is probably some literal translation of written/aural language, maybe a sort of visual Braille-like formation. Well, if I would think a bit, such “visual Braille” would immediately be rendered impractical if not impossible.

The first one third of the book is quite brilliantly written. Mostly, Dr
Jul 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Blow up your idea of what language is, by reading this book.

I get that it would have been interesting to hear Dr. Sacks's thoughts on CI, and that the politics and science of Deafness he documented in 1989 have progressed now, but I think it sells short how he clearly explained what he learned about What Makes Us Human from exploring the language and culture of the Deaf community.
Sue Bridgwater
Jan 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
If you want to understand Deafness and Deaf people you must read this book, along with When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf [Harlan Lane] and Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood by Paddy Ladd.
Jan 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Another fascinating Oliver Sacks opus, this one about the language and culture of the Deaf.
Changed to 4.5 Stars.

You know those questions that begin with What was life like before ------? This book answers such a question:
What was life before Deaf Community stood up for its rights?
Even Better:
What allowed Families, Schools, Science to cooperate with the Change?
What was the Crisis that led to the Change
How immediate was the Change

Sacks wrote this small jaw-dropping informative book at the just the right time to tell what led up to the Student Protests at Gallaudet in March 1988. The ne
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was published in 1989 so it's a little dated: it doesn't include insights from recent research on neuroplasticity and language, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) has changed the stigma around deafness that Sacks describes. But I still thought it was a wonderful book - Sacks's account of the "Deaf President Now" revolution at Gallaudet University is emotional and enthusiastic, and his general fascination for sign language and the minds of the Deaf is infectious. And the endnotes ...more
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
A chronicle of the rise, fall and revival of sign language - to a point. This book was published in 1989, and is time-bound. Sacks poignantly asks toward the end of the book:

'Will deaf people... and the deaf community at large, indeed find the opportunities they seek... To be themselves, a unique culture in our midst, yet... co-equals, to every sphere of activity?"

With the advent of cochlear implants - that's a question we continue to grapple with.
Courtney Williams
Nov 08, 2015 rated it liked it
I picked this book up in the library of the college where I studied British Sign Language. They have a small section dedicated to BSL and Deaf studies, which I'm sure I'll work my way through while my library card still works. Anyway, I was interested to hear Oliver Sacks' perspective on Deafness as a neurologist, so I decided to give "Seeing Voices" a go.

This book definitely shows its age, having been published 25 years ago (before the Americans with Disabilities Act – and, indeed, the UK's Dis
Mar 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: deaf-culture
I'm considering being a linguist because of this book. There are some things, some existences that just cannot be explained. Sacks does a great job showing you just how much language can make a person, and does a great job trying to depict the life of the language-less. It's a tough existence that's darn near impossible to even imagine, but this book gives as good of a overall peek as you'll ever get.

2018: Not sure what I meant by "language-less" when I wrote this. I hope I was referring to the
Luca Campobasso
Apr 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: neuroscience
The first part is absolutely amazing, the most engaging part of the book probably, where Sacks describes how deaf people were unjustly treated in the past, feelings about being deaf, and a delightful part with insights of linguistics of Sign, which is a must read for anyone interested in languages I think.

I couldn't stand though the part of praising-the-deaf, where I couldn't continue reading on, as I didn't find useful spending time reading several pages of glorification. I understand that deaf
Actually I've read this twice in Finnish, but there's no entry for the Finnish edition. The Finnish edition can't be bought anywere anymore as new since no new editions/publications have been made in years and the first ones are all sold out, but it's listed in many libraries. ...more
Jason Pettus
As friends know, here at the age of 50 I've started learning American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time, and am doing a deep dive into the politics and culture of the Deaf community with a capital "D," as a way of compensating for my ever-decreasing hearing and hopefully opening a new avenue for my shrinking social life. (See my review of A Deaf Adult Speaks Out for a long explanation of what exactly "Deaf culture" is, and why it's so important to learn about before getting involved with th ...more
Ahmed R. Rashwan
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I sit in front of my screen; staring. How, I ask myself, do I begin to convey the complexity of my emotions; or rather, the complexity, it seems, of my journey throughout this book, this manifesto. At once, scientific and personal, Oliver Sacks delivers a profound, moving and at many times emotional study and exploration of the world of Deaf People (capitalising intended) and Sign Language.

Set in three parts, 'A Deaf World', 'Thinking in Sign' and 'The Revolution of the Deaf', Oliver Sacks begin
Sophy H
3.5 stars

I usually LOVE Oliver Sacks works.

This however grated on me a little. There were far too many footnotes which could have pretty much made up a second book, and were way too distracting. I ended up ignoring them as they were getting on my nerves!

The subject matter, which I thought would have been of great interest to me as there is deafness in my family; came to me as flat and repetitive, over-quoted and outdated. I just lost interest very quickly.

Not one of Sacks best.
Jul 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I won’t bury the lead: I signed up for my first-ever sign language course after finishing this book and am now on week 3 of Colombian Sign Language, taught by a deaf professor. So, the book clearly worked for me. The short book was such a wonderful introduction to the world of the deaf that I’ve dared to enter it, hoping to gain some sort of access to their beautiful language(s) and culture(s).

The book’s first section contains a fascinating history of deaf culture and the origins of American Sig
May 22, 2013 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Alisa Zingerman
May 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Sacks' infinite ability to empathy deepens any subject he touches.
This book has been a complete surprise for me for two reasons: first, I started out reading it as a book about the deaf community, by and by I realizing that, far from talking about a physical trait, this book is about the process of defining a group identity, an identity that is unique, powerful, and beyond national. Second, when Sack touches something he goes to the very root of the phenomenon, so, intending to read about the w
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Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Sacks was the youngest of four children born to a prosperous North London Jewish couple: Sam, a physician, and Elsie, a surgeon. When he wa

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