The frequent surprises in Oliver Sacks’ guardedly self-revelatory autobiography begin with the book’s cover photo. There we see a buff, leather-jacketed Sacks astride his new BMW motorcycle in Greenwich Village in 1961. Who knew that the genial, gray-bearded, best-selling writer-neurologist once portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings (1990) was such a hunk in his late 20s? Or a state-champion lifter on Southern California’s Muscle Beach? Or a physician addicted for a while to amphetamines? Or a closeted gay man who had sex during the week of his 40th birthday and then not again until he fell in love at 75?
Revelations like these will keep a reader turning the pages of On the Move. But Sacks’ book, self-effacingly subtitled “A Life,” actually has much more to say than these headline grabbers would indicate. The book is a kind of reckoning, a summing up, of Sacks’ growth as an intellectual and a writer. Born in England to a prominent Jewish family, Sacks was from an early age a ceaseless letter writer and journal keeper; he draws liberally on those writings to give readers a sense of who he was as a younger man. Many of this autobiography’s 12 chapters offer the backstories to Sacks’ books, known for illuminating the curious workings of the human brain. Sacks also writes with feeling about his immediate family, almost all of them doctors, as well as his lasting friendships with the likes of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick and the poet Thom Gunn.
In fact it is an early Gunn poem that provides the title for this book. And what an appropriate title it is! In these pages, Sacks is always on the move, leaping adroitly from one topic to the next. We are swept along by the velocity of his account of a long and eventful life.