Awakenings. (Robin Williams portrayed Sacks in the movie version)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
Oaxaca Journal. (A book on ferns made interesting on so many levels. I quoted this book in my memoir Under The Banana Moon when I mention ‘a tanager on a mango’)
An Anthropologist On Mars.
Some of my favorite books. I’ve read some of them a few times. I’ve read all of Oliver Sacks’ books with a sense of wonder. The student in me, the anthropologist in me, is accessed and always I read with a sense of “What if?” What if I had had opportunity to go into this field? I didn’t know how to make my own opportunity, did not have support people pushing me toward the great poppy field which is neurology. And so through these books, I dream.
When I learned about this book (this memoir) called On The Move (most likely his last) I went into it prepared for this to be the best book I’ve read in years. It’s about a life fully lived.
I love great fiction, autobiographies and nonfiction that reads like a novel. I choose to read more memoirs than anything else.
Truth is always so much stranger and interesting than fiction.
I’ve read about children under the care of untreated mothers with severe mental illness.
I’ve read about people who’ve survived abuse at the hands of monsters disguised as lovers.
Books about people lost in the pace of life,
people living with narcissists,
and people in private hells.
Reading Dr. Sacks’ books, I feel I can prune back the enigmas of all these conditions and more, and truly appreciate the myriad, the complex and personal lives we all- as both blooming and withering human beings, live. Reading the book On The Move, I learned personal things about the doctor that are so surprising one can only say in retrospect “of course, of course… I should’ve known that was the way of it.”
I’m only halfway through this book and compelled to write about it. This book is about neurology, about people, about the brain. My brain loves to read about itself. How vain! It loves to read about how other brains function too.
In 1966 Dr. Sacks was well on his way in his career. Where was I in 1966? I was two years old. I was about 20 years away from reading my first Sacks book. I was about 30 years away from the diagnoses of dysthymia, selective mutism, aspergers. In ’66, my mother had yet to begin her foray into the school lunch system, where she would work her way up to manager and go to expos on missions to find healthier lunch selections for “her children.” My father was a foreman at a bustling textiles factory which was many years away from being declared by the EPA as a potential risk to human health and/or the environment due to contamination by one or more hazardous wastes. In 1966, the factory was ten years away from shutting down completely and so my father’s job seemed lucrative and promising then…
In 1966, approximately 80 miles from my nondescript grey house alongside Route 8, Dr. Sacks was teaching neurology to students at Beth Abraham in the Bronx. He especially stressed bedside teaching where students gathered around willing patients and under Sacks’ supervision, asked questions and the patient “taught” these future doctors what it was like to live (to be institutionalized) by a neurologic condition. One such patient was Goldie Kaplan who had a rare congenital condition affecting the spinal cord, called syringomyelia. She would say to the students:
QUOTE: “Don’t try to memorize ‘syringomyelia’ from your textbooks-think of me. Observe the large burn on my left arm where I leaned against a radiator without feeling heat or pain. Remember the twisted way I sit in a chair, the difficulty I have with speech because the syrinx is starting to reach into my brain stem. I exemplify syringomyelia! Remember me!” ENDQUOTE
People are not defined by their diseases and conditions. They are people first. What a superb hands on way to learn. Dr. Sacks’ students did remember Goldie many years later. They wrote to him to tell him just that. To him, they were never ‘cases,’ or ‘labels.’ They were people.
Sacks’ books are interesting to me not only because of his life’s work (neurology, which I can’t get enough of) but also because of his writing style… which feels so much like my own. In On The Move, Oliver has this to say about his writing process:
QUOTE: “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the acts of writing, in the act of writing. Occasionally a piece comes out perfectly, but more often my writings need pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive. I am haunted by the density of reality and try to capture this with (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) ‘thick description.’ All of this creates problems of organization. I get intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts and am too impatient to put them in the right order. But one needs a cool head, intervals of sobriety, as much as one needs that creative exuberance.” ENDQUOTE
Well said. I mentioned earlier that this may be Dr. Sacks’ last book. I say this because at 81, he has shared with the world that cancer inhabits a third of his liver. Sacks is quoted (at http://www.people.com/article/oliver-sacks-terminal-cancer), as saying he is determined to live his life
“in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. I feel intensely alive. I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
Words to live by.
Waylaid by tangential thoughts. Haunted by the density of reality. Intoxicated by the rush of thoughts.
tangential: of, relating to, or along a tangent.
tangential line: diverging from a previous course or line; erratic.
tangential thoughts: hardly touching a matter; peripheral.
Somehow, I get the feeling I’ll be continuing this “book review” when I finish the book……