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21 May 2015

A life in motion: the many passions of Oliver Sacks

Sacks has written of showing “extreme immoderation” in his passions. His new book, On the Move: a Life, reveals them.

By Erica Wagner

There is a photograph in Oliver Sacks’s new memoir of the author wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Welcome squid overlords”, a ­giant squid hovering like an alien behind the lettering. When I interviewed him at his New York office in 2001 (his first memoir, Uncle Tungsten, had just been published), he seemed a little diffident despite my keen regard for him – until I mentioned a friend of mine, Richard Ellis, a marine artist and authority on cephalopods, a subject in which I knew Sacks was interested. At that point he lit up. He knew Ellis’s work well and admired it. He pressed into my palm a plastic model of a giant squid and we were off.

This moving book confirms that it is Sacks’s expansive passions for learning and for experience that have made his such a vigorous, fascinating and influential life. “I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests – volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever – then I am instantly drawn into animated conversation,” he writes. Volcanoes! Jellyfish! Gravitational waves! No need even to mention the medical field in which he has made his name, neurology, for that is what underpins all the rest.

Sacks was born in London in 1933, the youngest of four sons. Both of his parents were doctors; his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. He recalls here how, at the age of 27, travelling through Canada (this is a book spanning thousands of miles of travel), he repudiated the notion that medicine was “his chosen profession”. “Others chose it for me,” he writes, noting the bitterness he felt at the time. And so he had to find his own way into medical practice. On the Move, more than any of his other books, shows the trajectory of that journey, what it cost him and what he gained.

This is by no means a “greatest hits” book, though it touches on all of the works that made his name in the world outside the medical fraternity: Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and Hallucinations, to name a few. Those were books that helped transform narrative non-fiction and revealed lives and personalities that most of us could never have imagined otherwise. Sacks’s work has always combined empathy with observation. “Neurologists, perhaps more than any other specialists, see tragic cases – people with incurable, relentless diseases which can cause great suffering. There has to be, along with fellow feeling and sympathy and compassion, a sort of detachment so that one is not drawn into a too-close identification with patients,” he writes here. That is a pithy reflection on his life’s work.

On the Move is written with energy but with the consciousness of mortality. Sacks is 81. For years now, he has struggled with poor health and in February he revealed, in a frank and moving piece for the New York Times, that he has terminal cancer. In that article, he reflected that he was not a man of mild temperament but rather one “of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions”.

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This book gives a vivid sense of many of those passions. One of the most striking is the author’s youthful love of motorcycles. He left England for the US in 1960 and worked for a time in California before finally settling in New York five years later. Leaving the UCLA clinic on a Friday night, he would get on his bike “and ride through the night, lying flat on the tank; the bike had only 30 horsepower, but if I lay flat I could get it to a little over 100 miles per hour, and crouched like this, I would hold the bike flat out for hour after hour”. He would get as far as the Grand Canyon – a thousand miles in a weekend – and show up for work bright and early on Monday morning. The photo­graphs of him in his leathers are something of a revelation, too. As someone has remarked on Twitter, the young Sacks was a stone cold fox – that’s the plain truth.

It almost reads as if the speed of the bike allowed Sacks to leave himself behind. He also sought oblivion in drugs and weightlifting (he once held the California record for a full squat: 600 pounds) and swimming. He doesn’t speculate here on the reasons why he might have wanted to disappear but when just before he went up to Oxford his mother learned that he was gay (from his father; Sacks had asked him not to tell her but he had), she showed “a face of thunder” and said to her beloved youngest child, “You are an abomination,” and added, “I wish you had never been born.” He never stopped loving his parents and his relationship with his mother was repaired but such an encounter can only exact a heavy price.

In medicine, too, he was the odd one out. He fought against many of the conventions of his profession. He spent time in Guam among people afflicted by a syndrome similar to the sleeping sickness that had affected the patients in Awakenings, the difference being that in Guam the sufferers were fully integrated into the community. “This drove home to me how barbaric our own medicine and our own customs are in the ‘civilised’ world, where we put ill or demented people away and try to forget them.”

There is little that Sacks forgets. This book is a delight and a fine prompt to return to his earlier work. When he was 12, a schoolmaster noted: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It’s our good fortune that he nearly did, flat out on the ride of his life, yet returned home to his notebook and pen.

On the Move: a Life by Oliver Sacks is published by Picador, 399pp, £20

Editor’s note: on 30 August 2015, it was announced that Oliver Sacks had died at his home in New York. He was 82.