33 essays from the legendary neuroscientist illuminate the depth and breadth of his interestsby Kate Womersley / May 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at the age of 82, but four years on he still seems prolific. Everything in its Place is his third posthumous work. Given the technological and alienating currents of modern medicine, perhaps we cannot afford to let him go.
A writer’s juvenilia are often uneven and revealing; so is this assortment of “senilia.” The 33 essays—many previously published—draw on Sacks’s legendary professional work as a neurologist, and span the breadth of his personal interests. These include ferns, astronomy, hiccups, Tourette’s, dream interpretation, the periodic table and herring. There are revised medical articles, autobiographical vignettes and even just musings.
Sacks is at his best when making observations about humans. The strongest essay, “Telling,” is on dementia. He describes a retired colleague, Dr M, who returned to the hospital where he once worked, but now as an inpatient. He had developed Alzheimer’s, yet still at times thought of himself as a practising physician eager to write prescriptions. “Should we have taken away his accustomed and well-rehearsed identity and replaced it with a ‘reality’ that, though real to us, would have been meaningless to him?” Sacks wonders. He was interested in how illness can be not life-limiting but life-altering, so as to retain—even enrich—meaning.
Sacks did not take to modernity with ease. He never owned a computer. He insisted on paper books. “Life Continues” is a long grumble about young people who risk having “a mind both shallow and centerless” because they haven’t read Jane Austen. Social media amounts to “a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale,” he concludes, without considering the benefits of a digital life.
Yet even after his melanoma diagnosis, Sacks had a remarkable vitality. “What a narrow ridge of normality we all inhabit,” he writes. Characteristically, these essays succeed in making life’s deviations into pathology more intriguing and less frightening.
Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks is published by Picador (£20)