On the Move: A Life

onthemoveOn the Move: A Life
by Oliver Sacks
2015/ 416 pages
Rating 8.5 – memoir

Fun book, for the most part, quirky and slightly irreverent but mostly . Oliver Sacks is now 80 years old and had had a truly amazing life, making the most of amazing times as a neurosurgeon, amateur chemist and author. He is best known for his books detailing the case studies of his patients in books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “Awakenings.”

Born into a well-to-do family of doctors, mother, father, brothers, Oliver tried to avoid the field, but that’s where his talents and interests lie anyway. Still, literature and writing beckoned and it shows. This is an example of excellent creative-style, or literary (used loosely) memoir. The facts and information are likely as accurate as any memoir, but the structure and style are less formal with maintaining interest being a primary goal.

So rather than opening with the standard “I was born in … the chid of… and went to school where …” we get a couple of stories about his motorcycles which underscore the title and theme of “moving” and/or action.

Although Sacks made his name in the field of psychology, the first chapters emphasize the motorcycle, early school experiences, California of the late 1960s, muscle-building, sex (of the gay variety), his brother Michael’s problems, and illicit drugs. I guess all of this is important to his actually coming into adulthood – and we get introduced to where he’s coming from as we approach his life work.

Then he writes about his early work with migraine and other patients and how that led to other things, including his writing of so many articles and books. There is neither a strict chronological or thematic order but the threads work into each other developing along the general linear path of his life and it feels as if the reader gets to really know Sacks on a personal level. This structure feels clumsy and awkward toward the en when he seems to have to catch up on so much of his professional writing.

Sacks is very careful to present himself as a deeply caring physician. This has been one of the regular criticisms of him over the years – that he only cares a far as the next clinical case study or best selling collection. I would have no idea because when people get famous they tend to be attacked. And it certainly is true that Sacks has published volumes of case findings. Do these invade the privacy and of his patients even if the names are changed? And his clinical findings are said to tend toward the anecdotal and the imprecise, “idiosyncratic” even – see Wiki:

On the other hand, broad-based statistical findings about details related to schizophrenia or migraines or autism may not provide quite enough information to see new connections or patterns. I probably think we need both kinds of information to really make progress in regards to these ailments. The medical establishment has been so accustomed to crunching numbers gathered via machines it’s hard for them to see much value in the one individual at a time, in-depth and breadth, which is Sacks’ speciality. But anecdotal evidence alone does not signal progress for large groups, either.

The problem is how are these books read and seen by pure laymen? Do the people, the patients, come off as freaks? Is Sacks the MC of a circus?

Back to the book, there is a certain amount of self-aggrandizing and name-dropping to be found but Sack’s minimalist chatty style works to keep that under control as does his telling of a couple of self-depricating adventures early on. Sacks writes very nicely. he’s clear, generally to the point snd mostly quite interesting.

Rather unusually, the notes are at the end of each chapter and I read them as I came to those pages. These are not source notes, but explanatory ones.

All in all I enjoyed this about as much as any celebrity memoir I’ve read. Yes, I recommend it to followers of Sacks, those interested in psychology or just readers who appreciate memoirs.

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