When Oliver Sacks was twelve years old, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report: "Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far." It is now abundantly clear that Sacks has never stopped going. From its opening pages on his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, On the Move is infused with his restless energy. As he recounts his experiences as a young neurologist in the early 1960s, first in California, where he struggled with drug addiction, and then in New York, where he discovered a long-forgotten illness in the back wards of a chronic hospital, we see how his engagement with patients comes to define his life. With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks shows us that the same energy that drives his physical passions--weight lifting and swimming--also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists--Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick--who influenced him. On the Move is the story of a brilliantly unconventional physician and writer--and of the man who has illuminated the many ways that the brain makes us human.
What I don’t understand though is how he helped people. Directly that is. I got very little sense of him as a physician. He didn’t seem to be terribly effective despite his passion and humanity. For starters, so many things interested or intrigued him that he didn’t seem to stick with anything for long. One minute it’s encephalitis lethargica, then Tourette’s, then autism, deafness, color blindness - and others. While some he retains an interest in most over time, it isn’t dedicated time, it’s here and there. Of all the countless people he met and/or wrote about how many did he help? How many got better? Did he cure conditions or improve them in any way? It’s hard to tell from this book. Clearly we need one from the receiving end of his ministrations.
It’s not as though he’s shy about his medical career. He considers himself a scientist, too, and talks about what rapport he has with his patients, what acclaim he’s had from some of his peers, although not all of them. It’s a tough personality to pin down. He’s mightily sure of himself in some ways and terribly insecure in others. I guess like any human. Overall I think he’d be a compassionate advocate for you if you were a patient, but I still don’t know if you’d get better.
He’d be an interesting person to know, but probably would try my patience. In his frank, but brief descriptions of his few love affairs he seems baffled as to why they fell apart. Some were that he fell in love with people who couldn’t return it, but some I got the feeling he ignored for long periods then smothered them. He seems like he was a good friend, but had many so you probably wouldn’t get much of his time. He’d be too busy writing anyway. Thousands of notebooks, millions of words. A life he certainly documented and enjoyed, but a baffling memoir.
Sacks was the youngest boy of four born to two English Jewish doctors. His mother was one of the youngest gynecologists to qualify in Britain and his father was a well-loved general practitioner. It was assumed that all the sons would follow the family trade and three of them did. The other, Michael, suffered from schizophrenia and was content to be a messenger boy. Sacks left England after finishing medical school. He first went to Canada where he thought he might work with the military as a way to avoid the draft in England. First, however, he travelled across Canada and he decided he should go to California. He quickly decided he wanted to stay and he managed to obtain a green card and became an intern and resident specializing in neurology. Sacks as a gay man found the acceptance he sought there but he also became addicted to amphetamines. He owned a motorbike and would often take off on trips to the Grand Canyon for a weekend. After completing his residency he moved to New York which is where he encountered the post-encephalitic patients. From the first book about these patients he went on to write many more. He also encountered many famous scientists and writers and he thrived on discussions with them. In addition to his books he wrote letters and journals and case notes, most of it in long hand. It was fortunate he was such a chronicler because he often quotes from those sources in this book. He has a true scientist’s questioning mind and continued to work even when faced with medical conditions that would stop a lesser man.
I’ll be sad if this is indeed Sacks’ last book but he has written so much I will have lots of reading left. And then, of course, I can always re-read them.
I started hearing a lot of Oliver Sacks after his death last year, and it got me interested in some of his work. But first, I wanted to know more about the man, and heard that this was an excellent book. So I went ahead and
What's most striking about this account, really, is how surprising the portrait of
Mind you, I found these accounts of his youth interesting mainly in that they were amusingly unexpected, rather than because they were fascinating in themselves. The book, on the whole, is a fairly disjointed series of personal recollections which range from only very mildly interesting to somewhat intellectually stimulating or rather touching, with those last two becoming more common later in the book. His accounts of his research and writing are, unsurprisingly, the most engaging parts, or at least they were for me, as they make a nice (if not really necessary) supplement to his other books. I'd say if you've read those and want a little bit of a personal, behind-the-scenes perspective on them, or if they've made you curious about the person behind them, it's may be worth picking up.
If you haven't read them, and are at all interested in medicine, the brain, or how human being beings work, I recommend some of them very strongly. There is a sense of intelligence, humanity, and deep curiosity that comes out even better in those, perhaps, than in this autobiography, and the subject matter is weird and wonderful and incredibly thought-provoking. Start, I'd say, with either Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat It's worth it.
He is constantly losing things: photographs, manuscripts, essays, letters. I'm glad the world is digital now.
Sacks is one of my favorite writers about the strangeness of the human brain (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Hallucinations are on my re-read list), and his books are distinguished by a respect for the humanity of his subjects that turns conventional doctor-speak on its head. He himself had some neurological idiosyncrasies (migraines and proposagnosia, among others) and writes about those candidly too. However, though I managed to soldier through this book, I somehow felt it lacked the respect for himself that dignified his other readings. A shame.