I finished the late Oliver Sacks’ most recent (and most general) memoir days before his death. As an avid listener of Radiolab (where he was a frequent contributor) I was aware of the severity of his illness as I read, which lent the whole experience a far more deliberate sense of looking back upon a life in its entirety. Sacks cast a wide net in his life, pursuing science with a sense of narrative that evoked the best scientific writing of the 19th century, but with all of the wonderful advances and wide knowledge base of the 20th century driving him to greater specificity and rigor, and his personal life is equally compelling.
This is far more what, growing up, I would have called an autobiography, as opposed to a literary memoir. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with Sacks’ prose. It’s simple and direct, but each word is well-chosen. The intent is not to dazzle, but to create an honest and plain communication between the reader and the life of the author. Sacks only falls into that Latinate vernacular when describing something in medical terms, camping squarely in the Anglo-Saxon when he tells us stories of his days riding motorcycles to the Grand Canyon on the weekends or participating in competitive weightlifting at Muscle Beach.
One of the things I find myself repeating in my reading log is how little the subject matter really matters, at least in comparison to the honest joy the communicator can bring to bear through good prose. I’m certain this truth has its limits (I probably don’t want to read about the minutia of the breeding displays of Western Fence-Post lizards, no matter how passionately its described), but I’ve found it to be a worthwhile truism. Sacks’ memoir details a fascinating and richly lived existence, but, more importantly, it does so with real, communicable joy.
Recommendation: Go get it.