Black and white photo of Oliver Sacks sitting on a motorcycle.

On the Move: A Life

An engaging autobiography of the exceptional Oliver Sacks.

I wanted to write a review of this book when I completed it last week, but my keyboard was dying, resulting in any writing being an excruciating process of missed spaces and doubled backspaces. Since then, I've acquired a new keyboard (and nearly completed my reading of another book, this time much drier and more excruciating), which means it is time to finally give some thoughts on this work.

My first encounter with Oliver Sacks was with his 2007 sorta-pop-sci Musicophilia, a work detailing concepts and case studies involving the effect of music on the brain and how it interacts with neurological disorders. It was a spectacular read... and then I forgot about him until a month ago. That was when I read an article referencing his autobiography On the Move: A Life and his death in 2015. RIP Dr. Sacks.

So, I did what any person who reads too much does – I wandered over to Amazon and picked up the book. Then I burned through all 380-ish pages in short order, as one does when life consists of only work and gym. You can't be physical all day without literally falling apart, and reading is a great side hustle. (It doesn't pay very well, however. Maybe try Uber if you need to make rent?)

The first half or two-thirds of the work is my favorite, as they detail his personal life and emotional journey over the years, giving a very human dimension to the development of an exceptional individual. The successes and tragedies and detours and adventures taken were what gripped me – road trip narratives of his journeys across the North American continent, a neurologist's view of the personal effects of substance abuse, and a nuanced relationship with his home and homeland of the UK.

These tales were peppered throughout with excerpts from correspondence with others. Dr. Sacks was a tremendously prodigious writer of letters, and apparently, he had kept all of the ones he received throughout the years, creating snapshots of his and others' thoughts across several decades. I couldn't help but consider how we no longer have the luxury of this in the contemporary world. All of our correspondence is lost in regular intervals of new device and technology adoption. In twenty years, our conversations with acquaintances, friends, and loved ones will have evaporated into the digital aether.

His insecurities were on full display in very descriptive recollections of his mental state at various times throughout his life, aided by (if I recall correctly) the thousands of journals he kept over the years. While he claims he never read them after their production, they were obviously a tool used to organize his thoughts. They ultimately provided an invaluable resource for recalling details that human memory is unable to over such a long and productive life.

The latter quarter or so of the book drops off a bit. In this section he mostly details his work in the latter half of his life, having an established career and reputation as a prominent neurologist and pop-science author. While it would hardly be an autobiography without the inclusion of these details, they lacked the humanity of the more character- and personality-focused sections of the work.

Overall, this is a must-read autobiography, and while autobiographies are not my usual fare, it was a very refreshing exercise in reading styles of literature I normally don't delve into. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the genre, as well as anyone into pop science literature.