Remember the movie Awakenings? Actually, if you’re in high school now, you’re probably way too young to actually remember the movie, but you may have stumbled across it on late-night cable at some point: it’s the one with Robert DeNiro, about a guy who suddenly wakes up after being in a coma for decades… It got nominated for a couple of Academy Awards.

Anyway, if you’re wondering what on earth a movie released all the way back in 1990 could possibly have to do with standardized test-prep in 2011, the answer is: quite a bit. You see, Awakenings is based on a book of the same name, a book that was written by a man named Oliver Sacks. Sacks is a neurologist who happens to have a fascination with unusual illnesses involving the brain: people who have strokes and suddenly develop extraordinary musical abilities, or those who are unable to identify the faces of their loved ones, despite having perfect vision (an affiction from which Sacks himself suffers). He is also one of the authors whose works appear on both SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading Comprehension.

I think that there are a couple of reasons why test-makers are so partial to Sacks’ work: its written in a style just accessible enough to be comprehensible to non-specialists but also just sophisticated enough to be challenging to many high school students. It deals with a subject matter that is culturally neutral but that at the same time presents a distinct point of view.

In short, it’s the College Board and the ACT’s dream come true. It’s also incredibly interesting reading, particulary when not condensed into 85 lines and accompanied by 10-12 questions. So if you’re looking to acquaint yourself with the kind of reading material that tends to show up on these tests, you can start by reading something by Oliver Sacks. Who knows? You might even like it.

Books by Oliver Sacks:


An Anthropologist on Mars

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Island of the Colorblind