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On the MoveReview - On the Move
A Life
by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 2015
Review by Beth Cholette, Ph.D.
Jan 5th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 1)

Like many others before and since, I was introduced to renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks through his delightfully deranged collection of case histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  The professor who made this required reading forever has my gratitude, as this cherished tome led me to more of Dr. Sacks' works, from An Anthropologist on Mars to the more recent Hallucinations.  His books defy categorization, being part medical essay, part auto-biographical, plus an element of pure storytelling.  Dr. Sacks connected with both his patients and his readers, infusing his writing with warmth, intelligence, and always, always humor.

I was saddened to hear reports that Dr. Sacks had terminal cancer, and when he passed away in August of this year (2015), I knew that his auto-biography, On the Move: A Life, would be next on my reading list.  Completed during the final year of his life, this memoir opens on Sacks' childhood in London.  Much emphasis is placed on his love for motorcycles, as his various bikes play a major role throughout his early years in the United States.  Sacks also reveals how his parents learned of his homosexuality (his father asked if he preferred boys) as well as his first experimentations in this area, mainly in Amsterdam.

After completing medical school in England, Sacks move to America for his residency.  I found the chapters which stem from this ("Leaving the Nest," "San Francisco," and "Muscle Beach") to be somewhat haphazard and difficult to follow—the timeline is constantly "on the move," as it were.  Furthermore, Sacks frequently includes excerpts from letters and even longer passages from journals he kept at the time, which I found disruptive.  Ironically, it is with the chapter "Out of Reach" that Sacks seems to hit his stride in this book.  At this point, he has moved to New York to complete his fellowship.  He has also begun to address his drug use, something that became a serious issue while he was a medical resident.  But most importantly, he begins to write in earnest about his work with patients.  This is Sacks' bread and butter; this is what he does so well. 

Subsequent sections include "Awakenings," a behind-the-scenes look at the stories which inspired both the book and the movie; "The Bull on the Mountain," the real-life tale which led to his book "A Leg to Stand On,"; and "A Matter of Identity," the road to the publication of the above-referenced The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  The final few chapters are a bit more personal in nature.  Dr. Sacks talks about his American cousin, cartoonist Al Capp, and his connections with that family; he reflects on his relationships with Stephen Jay Gould, Francis Crick, and Gerald Edelman; and finally, he shares his stories about growing old, both his struggles (declining health) and his joys (finding love).

On the Move occasionally meanders, but it seems likely that this is a simple reflection of the man himself.  The book also charms and fascinates, amuses and engrosses—all qualities brought to us by the wonderful and irreplaceable Dr. Sacks.

 

© 2016 Beth Cholette

 

Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.


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