An anomaly is something unexpected, and writing – in order to be interesting – invariably contains elements of the unexpected. We speak of composing letters, and of composition as the art of writing, but if you refer to someone as a composer it is a musician who comes to mind rather than a writer. That is no coincidence. As Oliver Sacks has proven time and again, there is something lyrical and even magical in the writing and exchanging of letters:
“Correspondence is also a major part of life. On the whole, I enjoy writing and receiving letters – it is an intercourse with other people, particular others – and I often find myself able to write letters when I cannot “write”, whatever Writing (with a capital W) means.” This passage comes from the next to last page of On the Move: A Life, the new autobiography from Oliver Sacks which I just breathlessly finished. The last sentence of the book reads as follows: “Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started nearly seventy years ago.”
It isn’t entirely clear whether Sacks penned the last sentence before receiving news of his death sentence, about which he wrote so poignantly in his February 2015 Op-Ed essay. But the sentiment is that writing itself continues to breath life into whatever time the good Dr. Sacks has remaining. This is a very personal book, and one that I took my time savoring throughout the past week, finding myself underlining, highlighting, and making margin notes so often that I might have passed for “Inky” – one of Oliver’s many early nicknames. It’s a wild ride, exposing readers to sides of Oliver about which he has been intentionally cryptic for years. For fans of the good doctor, the cover photo of Sacks melding with his cycle has now officially displaced the iconic Brando motorcycle image.
The coming out of On the Move was celebrated in a relatively private way last week, as reported by The Observer. It was from that reportage that I learned of this insightful piece in June’s Vanity Fair by Lawrence Weschler about Sacks, insights gleaned from a 40 year relationship that began with the exchange of letters.
Sacks has endured his share of criticism, as David Strumfels recently noted, yet I doubt that he has any harsher critic than himself. Oliver has been quoted in the past as saying that “I don’t feel proud of anything” yet one gets the feeling after finishing his autobiography that perhaps now, with death at his doorstep, he rightfully shares pride in what he has accomplished. Joyce Haase has a wonderful Pinterest page that celebrates Dr. Sacks’s lifelong love of learning, and his sharing of knowledge with an artistic flair.