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Oliver Sacks On His Burning Love Of 'Fire'

Many of my earliest and fondest memories are of fire. In our house in London, in the 1930s, we had coal fires in every room, and I knew nothing more peaceful and satisfying than gazing at the flames, the fiery red and orange colors, and the mysterious blue flames that sometimes hovered over these. Candles, too, were a delight, especially at Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But the fiery climax of the year came on Nov. 5 -- Guy Fawkes Night -- when we had fireworks in the garden, and I could hold a sparkler in my hand. When I was older, I was able to set up a little chemistry lab near the kitchen, and there I had my own Bunsen burner so I could make various explosions and set sodium afire to see it burning with a brilliant yellow flame.

Now, living in a New York apartment without a fireplace or even a gas stove, I can only recapture the joys and terrors of fire vicariously.  I have a whole shelf of books on fire (some of them given to me by a friend who is a local fire chief). My favorite of these is Fire by Hazel Rossotti.

Rossotti is a chemist by profession, but she has written books on a variety of subjects: color and diverse atoms -- which I am also very fond of -- and even a guidebook to Greece (in modern Greek, which she speaks and writes fluently). She is a born teacher and writer, incapable of writing a dull word, and as at home in cultural history as in the intricacies of atomic structure. Her book on fire, then, covers every aspect, from the chemistry of fire to fireworks, fire worship to fire-walking, cooking with fire, volcanoes, forest fires, firefighting, iron smelting, and firing clay pots.

Nowadays, as a neurologist, I am more concerned with the firing of neurons, and the slow molecular fires that burn in every cell. It is not entirely metaphorical to speak of the fire of life or the fire of inspiration.

But secretly, I often yearn for something harsher, more primal: blazing, superheated infernos, devouring sheets of flame, beautiful and terrible explosions. Rossotti's book, which would be best read, of course, by firelight, satisfies this slightly guilty love of fire on every level.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Oliver Sacks
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