“The questions of ‘telling’, of publishing detailed accounts of patients’ lives,” Oliver Sacks explains, “is a matter of great moral delicacy, fraught with pitfalls and perils of every sort.” For decades, the great neurologist has delighted us by presenting unique medical cases with wonderful and insightful writings and a good-hearted reflection on them. Now, in his last book, Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, Oliver Sacks says his final goodbye with a collection of essays on such cases, plus, his other loves, chemistry, ferns, books, science, among other things.
Everything in its Place contains a gathering of writings – organized in part by his partner Bill Hayes – that demonstrate Sacks’ wide-ranging curiosity and masterful writing. The book contains an arrange of Sacks’ greatest hits, with essays from The New York Book Review, The New Yorker, and other magazines. Moreover, new pieces of writings are introduced in the posthumous book. You get a sense of joyfulness while you glanced at every page without knowing what topic Sacks will tackle next. His penetrative writings, combined with a love for Victorian-era references and a compassionate heart, makes this book a hard goodbye for anyone that has followed Sacks’ career.
Everything In Its Place
Discovering Oliver Sacks
Like many of you, I discover Sacks through his books while entering a science field – neuroscience. I was never a reader, in fact, before Sacks, I could count with one hand the books a had read. My approach to reading was that it was dreadful and too complex. I could use my time for better things. Whenever a reading assignment was given in high school, I would always find a way to acquire a short summary or have a friend give me their take on the book. Even as an undergraduate I found ways to not read. In fact, I only read two books – from cover to cover – in my five-year journey at the University of Puerto Rico.
It wasn’t until I entered the field of neuroscience that reading became a pertinent function for me. After the devastation by Hurricane Maria, I decided that reading, especially books on the brain, was the appropriate thing to do. We were without electrical power for some months and graduate school required me to read more complex pieces. My initial reading didn’t involve Sacks, instead, I read a lot of technical writings. Plus a memoir by neuroscience pioneer Michael Gazzaniga. It wasn’t until a found a list that had Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, as a must-read for brain enthusiasts. I bought the classic but never read it. In fact, I took it for a vacation in Colombia and never once opened it. I immersed myself in reading hard-science works. I found (at that point in time) that Sacks’ prose wasn’t feeding that bias.
The book that would change everything and would start my fiery love for Oliver Sacks was his memoir, On the Move. Just a glance at the cover would make everyone curious. “This was a scientist?” I wonder while observing Sacks fit body cover in a leather jacket and on top of a motorcycle. I instantly read that memoir like it was for breakfast every day. Even at work, I had to read this amazing life. Sacks’ journey from Britain to the US enchanted me. His motorcycle rides through the states, his wild experimentations with drugs, its impossibility to do the hard sciences while having a prodigious talent to write tales, Sacks was one-of-a-kind. His compassionate look at patients’ disorders and always evaluating them further from their illness really captivated me that fall.
After On the Move, I read a great bulk of Sacks’ writings, buying all of his books – even an original copy of A Leg to Stand On – and subscribing to the NY Review of Books and the New Yorker just to read beyond his books. Sacks made me appreciate books, the importance of always thinking, writing and imagining. He even made me realize that old science books, even the ones that are 100 years old, are worth exploring.
A Love for the Books
In a sense, for me, Everything in Its Place is a culmination of my learning through Sacks. The books exuberate Sacks’ great mind, his love for nature, people, and life in general. The three-part book contains Sacks’ first loves, medical cases, and thoughts on life. The collection of essays feels like stepping out of an airplane after a wonderful journey in a mysterious country. There’s something for everybody in this great reading. Sacks’ magnificent compositions take life on its own, talking in one instance on the wonders of chemistry, on the other on a trip to a town where whole families with Tourette syndrome live happily, and in another, on how technology is shaping the way we socialize.
Sacks great tales will mean different things to the public, depending on what are they looking for or what captures their imagination. For me, as well as the creator of Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, Sacks’ love for books, libraries, and reading, in general, was my biggest takeaway.
Sacks write on his early memories of reading, “I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost.” In this essay, Libraries, he goes on to describe the different libraries that captured his imagination. But then ends with a sad note on the current state of libraries and the importance of them:
“Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything ‘of worth’ had been digitalized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft.”
He later adds in another essay when talking about the new technologies that are replacing the physical book, Reading the Fine Print:
“But I do not want a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad, any one of which could be dropped in the bath or broken, and which has controls I would need a magnifying glass to see. I want a real book, made of paper with print – a book with heft, with a bookish smell, as book have had for the last 550 years, a book that I can slip into my pocket or keep with its fellows on book shelves, where my eye might alight on it at unexpected times.”
That is a sentiment we are in agreement on. Books are a unique window to the knowledge that has characteristics that make them unreplaceable. I too, can’t read on a Kindle. It’s distracting and unreadable. Even audiobooks feel less enchanting and hard to manipulate. Whereas books, which you can go back and forth, cause you to lose yourself in its writings. Sacks explain this better than me in the last part of the essay:
“But there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream, in the middle of a sentence – one reads in one’s own times. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.”
Last Word on Everything In Its Place by Oliver Sacks
Perhaps this is Sacks’ legacy, a love for words, for reading. Sacks made it enjoyable to read complex medical cases. He made us wonder, imagine, and ponder. His beautiful compositions worked their way through our brain. Add to this, a compassionate look on patients, his unquiet mind for the workings of nature, and his devotion to a wide range of topics. Everything In Its Place makes it clear why we fell in love with the man and his work. Moreover, we reflect on our journey and when we discovered Oliver Sacks. In the process, we may have even discovered a look into the great workings of life.