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book review

John Semley

Last week, watching a Habs game at a garbage bar in Toronto's Bloordale neighbourhood, over a supper of marked-down chicken wings, soapy beer and pizza that looked and tasted like it came from the frozen-food section, a friend noticed my dog-eared copy of Oliver Sacks's memoir. Admiring the cover, which shows Sacks – the British neurologist and author of such popular medical case histories as Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia – strapping and short-haired, straddling an old motorcycle, dressed in pleated leather, looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, my friend asked, knowingly: "I thought Oliver Sacks was some old guy?"

Well, yes. Sacks, 81, is indeed now "some old guy." And having recently announced a terminal cancer diagnosis, he's not likely to get much older. So barring posthumous publications, On the Move is likely Sacks's final book. As such, it offers a way for both author and reader to look back on his life with a sense of closure. Death – or the imminent threat of death – has a way of ordering things in hindsight, of giving shape and structure to experience. It's like that old adage about writing mystery novels: You start with the ending and then work backward.

As terrifying as it may be to know how, and more-or-less when, you're going to die, it must also be liberating. With an ending in place, it's easier to envision one's own life story. As the French author and photographer Édouard Levé writes in his experimental novella Suicide (submitted to a publisher a few days before Levé took his own life): "Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitute their lives."

Still, maybe it's not so much the final act as what we get up to en route to our "some old guy" years that give shape and structure to our experience. And to live a life a tenth as lively, as fascinating, as totally rich with incident as Sacks has lived would be a humbling triumph.

I knew Sacks mostly as a doctor and prolific author, and the guy who inspired both Robin Williams's character in Penny Marshall's Awakenings (based on Sacks's book of the same name) and Bill Murray's character in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. That is: I knew of him, but nothing about him. There's a sense that the scientifically minded are beholden to a certain introversion, that someone like Sacks can only be so prolific because he spent his time locked away indoors, turning out book after book after book. Sacks is an affront to such broad stereotyping.

His journey from Britain to Canada, then the United States, constitutes a kind of upper-crust picaresque, with Sacks abandoning the refinements of British life and culture to hitchhike and motorcycle across North America in the 1950s. He worked for a day as a firefighter battling blazes in the forests of British Columbia. He had sex with strangers at the San Francisco YMCA. He set a California record for squatting 600 pounds. He indulged in voguish sixties drug use, driven by his "insatiable, dangerous curiosity." And he became, in turn, addicted to amphetamines, seeking help in 1966 to thwomp his life-threatening addiction.

All this while undertaking research fellowships, working as a clinician, meeting with patients, and developing new theories on the nature of headaches, Tourette's, deafness, proprioception and encephalitis lethargica (or "sleepy sickness," a condition that renders its sufferers speechless and motionless). He also falls in love. A lot. He falls in love with his patients, with his friends, with Manitoulin Island, with the topography of Australia, with jugs of cider procured in upstate New York, with pretty much everything. But more than anything else, Oliver Sacks seems irrepressibly, intoxicatingly in love with writing.

As a boy, Sacks's nickname was "Inky" because he was always covered in ink from his compulsive journaling. It's a reputation that's stuck with him throughout his career. Indeed, Sacks's authorial enthusiasm has sometimes been a point of contention, with other neuroscientists taking issue with his methodology – or lack of. Leading Tourette's expert Arthur K. Shapiro called Sacks "a much better writer than he is a clinician." He has also been reproached for "exploiting" his patients in bestselling case histories. (In his memoir, he's careful to mention examples where he checked his book drafts past his patients in order to ensure a kind of tacit approval.)

It's easy to dismiss such criticism as mere professional jealousy, perpetrated by doctors and researchers who haven't achieved Sacks's unlikely notoriety as a "celebrity neuroscientist." Yet On the Move gives backhanded credence to some of this criticism, developing the image of Sacks as a writer first and medical doctor second.

"The act of writing," he puts it in his book's closing passage, "gives me pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed, the passage of time." It's the sort of thing that rings true to anyone whose has ever hunkered down industriously over a keyboard, who has ever felt the inebriating warmth that comes with losing oneself in something; when the pressing anxieties of the day seem to fall away in a bout of focused efficiency.

This legacy of hyperproductivity may well be Sacks's legacy. On the Move is as much a dense journal of Sacks's own astonishing, incident-rich life as a meaty handbook on how to live. Beyond his humbling professional achievements, the quality, character and sheer quantity of Sacks's life experiences feel downright shaming. No time for soapy beer and crappy pizza and sticky 10-cent wings. No more time-wasting and indulgent self-loathing. No point in ending up just some other old guy.