The Autobiography of Oliver Sacks

On the Move is the autobiography of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. Many readers might be familiar with his work: Among other things, he wrote Awakenings, from which the movie of the same name was made, starring Robin Williams; and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which made him famous, a compilation of essays about some of the interesting patients he has seen.

If you are at all familiar with his work -- and even if you are not -- you will probably find his autobiography, as I did, astonishing. Who would have guessed that Sacks was a serious weightlifter as a young man? Or a motorcycle enthusiast? Or that he had endless difficulties, both with his career as a neurologist, and his career as a writer?

It is all conveyed in his wonderful prose, so accurate, insightful, and humanistic. The best parts, perhaps, are his insights into neurology and the meaning of neurological symptoms for the lives of his patients. He brings a holistic perspective to a field that is fascinating in its own right.

The book is replete with observations and anecdotes of many illustrious intellectual figures who became friends of Sacks, including Jonathan Miller, Stephen Jay Gould, and Francis Crick. Sacks considers himself shy, unable to indulge in chatting or small talk, and often alone on the fringes of parties; and yet he enjoyed an unusually deep and complex set of relationships with a great variety of individuals in whom he took a special interest. These people ranged from the intellectually elite to ordinary individuals to patients with severe neurological disorders, many of whom found remarkable ways to adjust to or compensate for their condition.

Sacks explores neurological deficits partly as a means of understanding the normal brain and mind. It is as if by studying the myriad things that can go wrong with an automobile, one can discover what enables it to function properly. By this means, his vision, his understanding of consciousness, goes far beyond autism, or Tourette's syndrome, or aphasia. By studying dysfunctional fragments, he aims to understand the whole.

Somewhat curiously, however, Sacks's driving, restless interests do not seem to encompass what might be considered heightened states of awareness, or transcendent forms of consciousness. He takes pride in unearthing nineteenth century case studies of neurological symptoms; one wishes he had paused as well to read and reflect on Varieties of Religious Experience, or had expanded his research to include yoga, meditation, and spiritual states of mind.

As interesting as the book is, at the same time I felt in it an undercurrent of sadness whose source was hard to trace. Was this just a personal reaction from reading about a life richer, in many ways, than my own? Was there an implicit nostalgia in a man nearing death, reflecting on years long past? Or was the sorrow somehow embedded in the scenes and circumstances he described? I could never tease it out.

Sacks concludes his narrative with some reflections not on neurology, nor on the cast of characters he has known, but rather on the act, and the art, of writing. He has kept journals since the age of fourteen, and their number now is nearly a thousand. Most of his journals were not used for any purpose other than to write them: "The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing." His published work, therefore, represents only a small fraction of his life as a writer; and it seems that, in the end, it is the life of a writer that is closest to the core of his being. His autobiography represents a fine and fitting cap to that career.