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On the Move with Oliver Sacks

During my bachelors in cognitive neuropsychology, we often looked at case studies in class. We might be given descriptions of patients with particular symptoms, and be asked to diagnose these patients. During these classes, our professor would often refer to Oliver Sacks' famous compilation of case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. From this moment on, Sacks was, to me, the face of neuropsychology. (Our professor often implied that he and 'Oliver' were close friends. I've always wondered whether this was true; our professor was a boastful man, and he's not mentioned anywhere in On the Move.)

But aside from a few extracts from Hat (Sacks has a one-word title for all of his books), I never read anything by Sacks until midway through my PhD, when I picked up The Island of the Colorblind. In the first story of Island (there are two), Sacks describes his visit to an isolated island where about 10% of the inhabitants are fully colorblind. Sacks set out to investigate this peculiar prevalence of full colorblindness, which, unlike red-green colorblindness, is very rare. In the second story of Island, Sacks describes another isolated island community, this time with a more serious problem: many people in this community develop a neurodegenerative disease that leads to Parkinson-like symptoms and crippling disability. Again, Sacks tries to get to the bottom of this medical mystery. (Spoiler alert: Neither story is solved.)

While reading Island, I fell in love with Sacks' writing. The way he tells medical stories from a first-person perspective makes that some of them read like detective novels. To Sacks, neurological conditions are crimes to be solved. There's also a hint of this in On the Move, when Sacks tells the story of a patient, Frank C., with a mysterious neurological condition.

Sacks' writing is colorful, conversational, and filled with digressions. By his own admission, he prefers five adjectives when one will do. Another characteristic feature of Sacks' writing is his excessive use of semicolons; whereas most modern writers avoid them (following the maxim that 'the best punctuation is a full stop'), Sacks glues every other sentence pair together with a semicolon. Although this can lead to unattractive, hard-to-read prose, Sacks makes it work. And it's contagious. On me, as a non-native speaker of English trying to develop my own voice, Sacks had, and still has, a strong influence. And I suspect that I'm not alone. Before starting to write this post, I read this review of On the Move, and was struck by its lyrical prose. I don't know how the author of this review usually writes, but I couldn't help wondering whether she had, perhaps inadvertently, imitated Sacks' style.

On the Move is an autobiography. But it also a case study: a very long case study about Sacks himself. The reader is taken from Sacks' days as an Oxford student, through his weightlifting days on Muscle Beach (the photographic evidence of which you can see on the right), to the present—or almost. The book's structure is roughly chronological, although there are many back-and-forths. Each chapter is organized around a common theme. But, as a reader, On the Move feels like a series of anecdotes that flow into one another by association. It is the story of a grandfather who looks back on his life; but an exceptionally rich life, told by an eloquent grandfather with a photographic memory. I was initially surprised about the level of detail in On the Move, but, as Sacks describes near the end of the book, he has kept detailed journals throughout his life. This explains how he can describe events from the 1950s as though they happened yesterday. (And some tall tales, probably; at least if you accept the physical impossibility of drinking seventy American-style cups of coffee in a day!)

On the Move is at the same time personal and detached. Sacks describes his most intimate moments, including sexual encounters. He also describes his fears, hopes, and frustrations. But On the Move is never overly sentimental. He always keeps a certain distance; Sacks is an observer, a chronicler, even when he talks about himself.

This detachment is evident also from Sacks' lack of judgment. For example, after Sacks revealed his homosexuality to his parents, his mother told him that: "You're an abomination. I wish you had never been born." This parental rejection must have devastated the young Sacks. But the old Sacks passes no judgment, nor does he justify his mother's reaction; he merely places it into the context of an England in which homosexuality was taboo, and even illegal. Similarly, Sacks describes how he showed his first book, Migraine, to Arnold Friedman, the head of the migraine clinic where he worked at the time. Friedman criticized the book harshly, only to later publish parts of it under his own name. But Sacks doesn't rage about Friedman's inexcusable behavior; to Sacks, it is just another example of the relationship between a senior scientist and a scientific prodigy turning sour.

Most of On the Move is about Sacks' personal life; science is merely the backdrop against which his life unfolds. But in the penultimate chapter, A New Vision of the Mind, he suddenly switches gear; here he describes a new view of the brain, Neural Darwinism, which was revolutionary at the time. Here too, Sacks is an observer. He shares his excitement about new scientific developments, but is modest about his own part in them.

On the Move is upbeat. But what we know now casts a shadow over the final chapter, Home. Here, Sacks describes how he gradually lost one eye to cancer (he describes this in more detail in The Mind's Eye). As always, he focuses as much on the positive (the weird visual experiences that resulted from the gradual degradation of his eye) as on the extreme fear that he must have felt. But we now know that, despite a good prognosis, Sacks did not permanently beat this cancer. In an article in The New York Times that was published just before On the Move (but written later, of course), Sacks informed the world that his cancer had returned. And this time it's not going away. The NYT article was in classic Sacks style: personal yet detached, focused on the positive, and beautifully written.

So it may well be that On the Move will be Sacks' last book. That makes me sad, but I won't focus on that—Sacks doesn't; instead I'm happy and grateful that he has shared his stories with me and many others.