Monday, 15 June 2015

On the Move / Oliver Sacks

3 out of 5 stars
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.

This was a GoodReads first reads giveaway, which I won in April. The publisher provided an uncopy-edited proof.

I will admit that I have heard of Oliver Sacks, but have never read any of his other books and I entered this giveaway on a whim. (I did, however, see the Robin Williams film Awakenings based on Sacks’ work with postencephalitic patients.) So I have no points of comparison, to be able to judge Sacks’ writing in this book vs. his other works.

I was surprised at how little self-analysis went into this autobiography—for a man who was able to interpret the lives of people with major brain dysfunctions, he seems to be either unable or unwilling to observe his own life in the same way. For instance, he mentions repeatedly that he identifies people by their voices, rather than their faces, but he doesn’t connect this lack of facial recognition with his own fascination with neurology. It would seem to me that this would be a major motivator in his interests, to understand one of his own foibles.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story—Sacks’ parents were interesting people in their own right with thriving medical careers and he was obviously extremely fond of them and the rest of his family. It is a shame that he felt that his homosexuality separated him from them in important ways. The lack of acceptance of such a fundamental part of his being seems to have been the motivating force that kept him “on the move” for the majority of his life. I don’t think that it is coincidental that he has finally found a stable relationship after the death of his parents—it seems unlikely that his mother would ever have been accepting of such a situation. [This reminds me a bit of Canadian author Robertson Davies, who claimed he was unable to write novels until his parents were gone].

Sacks had adventurous interests—motorcycles and weight lifting, in addition to venturing into medical areas that others avoided. Also a swimmer and a walker, he seems to have had a very balanced life in the sense that he had a vigorous intellectual life with an equal emphasis on physical challenges. He also balanced science and the arts, with an acute appreciation of music and literature.

Although I enjoyed this memoir, I think I would probably have appreciated it more had I read some of his other books first. Still, it is an interesting life review by a man now facing his mortality due to cancer. Although he has not followed an easy path in life, he has achieved a great deal.


  1. Hi Wanda

    I have read a number of his books but have held off buying this one. I agree that it sounds like reading some of his other books might have helped as he talks about himself in those books but I am surprised he did not include it in this book for people who had not read the other books. He is interesting in that he seems to have some fairly significant challenges yet has been very successful in a challenging field. We are well lots of birds and a family of foxes at the farm to provide some interest.

    All the best.

    1. Guy, if you want to read this one, I will gladly give you my copy.

      Glad to hear that life at the farm is so enjoyable!