When an admired writer dies, one consolation is that his passing doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his appearance in print. Happily, that’s true of prominent neurologist Oliver Sacks, who’s been gone since 2015. Sacks has left behind Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, a collection of 34 pieces, some of them previously unpublished—a reminder of the breadth of his professional expertise and the depth of his personal passions.
Admirers of Sacks’ previous books, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, will most enjoy the section titled “Clinical Tales.” In these essays, Sacks revisits some of the subjects of the medical case studies for which he’s best known: the way neurological disorders can alter dreams in striking ways, or whether out-of-body and near-death experiences are hallucinations or divine visions.
But Sacks doesn’t confine himself to tinkering with his previous work. “The Catastrophe” sensitively recounts the tragic story of his patient, actor and writer Spalding Gray, who committed suicide some two years after suffering a head injury in a car accident. “Cold Storage” is the bizarre tale of a man Sacks calls “Uncle Toby,” who gradually slipped into a comatose state where he remained, unmoving (and unmoved by his family), for seven years. Sacks offers encouragement in his essay “The Aging Brain,” as well as terror in “Kuru,” a brief survey of diseases collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE), the most familiar of them “mad cow disease.”
Sacks is equally appealing when he turns to more personal topics—including his love for gefilte fish and botanical gardens—which make up the book’s final section, “Life Continues.” This section takes its title from a touching piece he wrote only a short time before his death. In it he decries the “complete disappearance of the old civilities,” displayed daily in the way “a majority of the population is now glued without pause to their phones or other devices.” But Sacks, the quintessential humanist, maintains his optimism, fueled by a belief that “only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.” That aspiration and all the essays collected here are a fitting valedictory to Oliver Sacks’ fascinating life.