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Book Review: Oliver Sacks


Book Review: Oliver Sacks

anna magnowska

Oliver Sacks , once described by the New York Times as 'the poet laureate of medicine', has recently published his autobiography On the Move. It tells the story of his remarkable life; via London, Oxford, New York and California, Sacks has been a drug addict and a motorbike fanatic, as well as a pioneering doctor in the field of neurology and psychiatry. He is the best selling author of many books including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings , which was adapted to become an Academy Award nominated film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. 

Writer, jazz musician and London's most famous Black Cab driver, Ian Beetlestone, reviews 'On the Move' for PRN. 

Illustration by Anna Magnowska

Illustration by Anna Magnowska

On Oliver Sacks' fortieth birthday, in July 1973, he is swimming alone in one of the ponds on Hampstead Heath when someone gropes him under the water. 'I started violently', he writes, 'and the groper surfaced, a handsome young man with an impish smile on his face.'

So begins 'a happy, festive, loving week... the days full, the nights intimate.' The two visit galleries together and attend concerts. They make love. They part 'without pain or promises' when the week is over. And 'it was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future', writes Sacks, 'for after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years.' So ends the tale, as abruptly as it began.

It's one of many almost throwaway vignettes that appear throughout On the Move and serve the delightful double function of both packing in more stories while also proving hugely endearing. This is a wonderfully frank and open autobiography delivered in a matter of fact, almost naïve way, as if this kind of stuff could just happen to any eminent neurologist and writer during the course of his career and is as curious to the author as to the reader.

Sacks isn’t merely a brilliant man, he’s an adventurer, an explorer of the mind and of the world.

Sacks isn't merely a brilliant man, he's an adventurer, an explorer of the mind and of the world. Not simply a doctor and a writer, he's also a motorcyclist, a swimmer, a teenage chemist, a scuba diver, an experimenter with mind-altering substances, a one-time drug addict, a great letter-writer and friend, a champion bodybuilder. It is his endless curiosity and eagle-eyed observation of the phenomenon of the internal and external worlds that makes it all sit together in the one man, and makes this such an appealing autobiography.

His mother tells him he is an “abomination” and wishes him unborn when he tells her he's gay, but this is never mentioned again and their love and respect for each other remain strong. 'We are all creatures of our upbringings', the doctor reasons, 'my mother did not mean to be cruel... she was suddenly overwhelmed... she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.'

There are countless accidents, mishaps, near-death experiences. The young Sacks drinks a whole bottle of Aquavit on a ferry from Norway to England, being allowed to carry two bottles out of Norway but only one into the UK and so having no sensible alternative. After whiling away the voyage reading Joyce's Ulysses on deck he gets up and falls straight back down again. 'I was extremely surprised by this', he writes. 'It began to dawn on me that I was drunk... though the drink had apparently gone straight to my cerebellum, leaving the rest of my head alone.' He is then assisted from the boat by the crew. On a near miss on his first motorcycle he writes, 'reaction came a minute later: I rode another block, parked the bike in a side road – and fainted.'


Sacks spends the night he loses his virginity plucking up dutch courage in an Amsterdam bar. The next thing he knows it's the following morning and he's in an unfamiliar bed being offered a cup of coffee by a stranger in a dressing gown. 'He had seen me lying dead drunk in the gutter, he said, had taken me home... and buggered me.' In other hands this might be the beginning of a very different memoir – a very different life, in fact – but Sacks asks, “Was it nice?” and cries with relief as they talk.

A great asset of the book is that Sacks treats himself as one of his own case studies – indeed, seems to know no other way to approach the subject.

Repeatedly one picks up this sense of a powerfully analytical mind observing itself from outside. A great asset of the book is that Sacks treats himself as one of his own case studies – indeed, seems to know no other way to approach the subject. It is deeply touching, then, that he finds a new partner in his seventies and writes 'it has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love.'

The book is broadly chronological, beginning with boarding school and getting straight onto Sacks' early love of motorcycles. Then come extended trips to Canada and California before settling in New York for the bulk of his medical and literary career. But in amongst it all we flit to and fro as memories take hold or an event relates to an earlier or later one, and there are great, sweeping, discursive sections on neurological theory and decades-long collaborations with other great thinkers from the world of science. Sacks writes, 'It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing'. It's a process that On the Move allows us to see in action, and it's all the more wonderful for it.

There is much detail on the writing and publication of Sacks' bestselling books, particularly the extraordinary Awakenings, and plenty of anecdotes too about the creation of the subsequent Hollywood movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams (playing Sacks).

The chapter about the leg injury that led to the writing of A Leg to Stand On is again fascinating in its demonstration of Sacks' almost hilarious ability to observe his own life events as if they were simply interesting natural phenomenon happening elsewhere. As he carries out emergency treatment on himself at the bottom of a Norwegian cliff, he narrates the procedure out loud as if addressing his students: '”You see the quadriceps tendon has torn off completely, the patella can be flipped to and fro, the knee can be dislocated backwards: so.” With that, I yelled. “This causes the patient to yell,” I added'.

Oh, and how did this accident happen? Why, when this great rational doctor saw a 'Beware of the Bull' notice he assumed – a mountainside being an unlikely place to keep such a creature – that it was just the 'Norwegian sense of humour' and 'dismissed it from my mind'. As his editor comments during a subsequent hospital visit, “You'd do anything for a footnote” (Sacks has a habit of bombarding his editors with footnotes; there are a modest 75 in On the Move, all illuminating and many highly entertaining).

Fascinating thing the human brain, isn't it?