Monday, July 13, 2015

Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015)

     Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015) Sacks is one of my heroes, so I approached this memoir prepared to like it, and for the most part I did. Here and there Sacks gives us not much more than a list of events, but the rest of the book more than makes up for those rare longeurs. Reading his books may leave the impression that Sacks has had a straightforward career in clinical neurology, with many side trips following his passions and puzzlements. In fact, chance and the kindness of strangers had more to do with his success than focus and persistence. He became a neurologist because his mentors provided shelter and opportunities to practice when he had no regular position at the hospitals in which he learned his trade.
     He’s a man with a huge range of interests, variable enough that I wonder what’s the common thread that ties them together. I think it’s his willingness to satisfy his curiosity, no matter where it leads. Sometimes these trails transform into books, about cycads, his broken leg and recovery from a neurological side-effect, autism, and so on, but most of all about his patients. He’s remarkably lacking in caution, for example, he experimented with drugs in California, and for a while was addicted.
     He’s an inveterate diarist. He includes a photo of himself at the Amsterdam train station, his briefcase and umbrella on the ground in front of him, writing. I think that’s why his books are not neutral records but  personal experiences. He understands by imagining himself as the patient; journal writing feeds the imagination by recording memories.
     He had the luck to find his profession during its formative phase, when it was still unclear just how much could be known and understood about the brain and its glitches and injuries. And he trusts his skill in observation and knows his inability to abstract and generalise, hence recorded his cases as stories, not mere accumulations of data. I think this is the reason his books have become so popular, and have helped so many people. After each book he has received letters from people with similar problems, telling him how they understood themselves better.
     I enjoyed this book, reading most of it in three major sessions. If you like Oliver Sacks, this book is essential. Otherwise, it’s a remarkable record of a remarkable life lived during some of the most remarkable changes in our society and culture. By the way, Sacks really likes motorbikes, and spent a good deal of his time in California riding. He also won a weightlifting championship. His Uncle Tungsten records his life as a chemist. Like I said, he’s a man of widely variable interests. ***½

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