Jason Pettus's Reviews > Seeing Voices

Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks
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it was amazing
bookshelves: postmodernism, nonfiction, npr-worthy, personal-favorite, politics, history, smart-nerdy

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 the community.) I stumbled across this particular book at my neighborhood library, while looking up others that had been recommended to me in the StartASL.com online course I'm currently taking; and I'm glad I did, because it takes an intellectually fascinating look at the subject, as you would expect from this famous pop-culture scientist who has gained international fame and a Hollywood career from being able to distill complex scientific concepts into language that you and I can understand.

Thankfully as well, this is a relatively tiny book that you can make it through in just a single day -- only 160 pages altogether, with half of that scholarly footnotes you can easily skip -- arranged in three parts, two of which were first published as magazine articles: part 1, in which Sacks looks at the invention of formalized sign language during the Enlightenment of the late 1700s, and how it was eventually criminalized for a century by the repressive Victorian Christians of the late 1800s (who claimed that ASL was "ungodly" and "blasphemous," because the Bible clearly states that the difference between humans and animals is our ability to speak), originally began as a review of a book on the same subject for the New York Review of Books; while part 3, in which Sacks travels to Washington DC in order to be a first-hand witness to the Gallaudet University student protests of 1988, and waxes philosophically on the civil rights movement and the history of the deaf being treated by the hearing as "ignorant children," was first printed in the same publication. The original part 2, then, which comprises the majority of this book, is an in-depth look at the neurology behind all language, what happens in the brain when a person signs instead of speaks, and what we can learn about ASL as a legitimate language by looking at deaf people with various confirmed maladies of the brain, and what happens to their particular signing because of these maladies.

Here 30 years later, perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that it's arguably the first-ever memoir of a hearing person who "got woke" after the astounding developments within the Deaf community during the late '80s, a public intellectual who freely admits that he hadn't even really given Deafness a second thought before writing this book, but has come out the other side awed at the complexity and linguistic richness of ASL, the resilience and courage of the Deaf community, and the appalling discrimination that was inflicted on this community for decades without any of us even noticing. In the decades since, this dawning awareness has been happening among more and more of the hearing population, usually through spikes in the popular culture that gain unusual notice, whether that's the '80s movie Children of a Lesser God, Marlee Matlin's Emmy-winning guest role on Seinfeld in the '90s, or the massive popularity among Generation Z teens for the 2010s Disney Family Deaf-culture soap opera Switched at Birth (about which I've written an entirely separate essay in the past, for those who might be curious). Apart from Sacks' neurobiological look here at ASL as a language, which can sometimes become much too technical for a lay audience, it's his engaging wokeness that's the main takeaway here, a lesson in tolerance and the pleasures of intelligent curiosity that we can all learn important things from. This thin, fast volume comes strongly recommended in this spirit, especially if you're not planning on reading any other books on Deaf culture.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
April 1, 2019 – Shelved
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: postmodernism
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: nonfiction
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: npr-worthy
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: personal-favorite
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: politics
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: history
April 1, 2019 – Shelved as: smart-nerdy
April 1, 2019 – Finished Reading

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