Book report #28 (2021)

Everything in Its Place, by Oliver Sacks. Pub 2019

A now-former work colleague recommended Oliver Sacks as good reading. As this same person had recommended Harari’s Sapiens, which was excellent, I took their advice again and was not disappointed.

This is the most recent of Sacks’ books, a posthumous one. It is a collection of essays of varying lengths compiled around the themes of first loves and last tales, with a centrepiece of the clinical studies and stories that made him famous. Sacks’ writing is erudite and accessible, bringing challenging topics to a wide audience and normalizing the abnormal and the uncomfortable with beautiful prose, quiet introspection, and humane consideration. The clinical stories are moving and informative and thoughtful, and because most end with uncertainty and questions reflect the ongoing exploration of humans and health and thought. I especially enjoyed the “The Catastrophe” (recounting the case of Spalding Gray), “The Aging Brain” (an essay about cognitive challenges with age, and the reminder that, “A distinction must be made in the aging patient between longevity and vitality.”), and “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum” (a longer essay about the history of asylums and the terrible results of the deinstitutionalization experiment of the past 40 years).

The last third of the book comprises more personal (but still science-focused) essays, most written in the last 10 years of his life after his own first brush with mortality from disease. These include the wonderful “Reading the Fine Print” (about the essentialness of reading and especially of actual books over e-readers and audiobooks) and his final ever piece of writing, the essay “Life Continues”, with his thoughts and ruminations on the dual scourge to modern society of smart phones and social media, and the need for hope for the future, even — or especially — when one knows they won’t be a part of it. The belief that life will continue even when we do not is shown as essential for meaning in every thought, word, and deed. Sacks sees both culture (literature, art, music) and science as essential for humanity, and describes good science as:

“…moving cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continued self-testing and experimentation…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.”

In our present world, he might have added, “open to questions” as another essential feature of science and culture, to distinguish it from dogma reinforced by economics, politics, and the media.

These essays are excellent, and like short stories are great to dip into at the end of a day, over lunch, or as a respite between chores and work. Another author to add to future readings.

Fate: I will read more Sacks in the future, but this one will go to another reader for their enjoyment.

10 – a book of essays
23 – a memoir
25 – an author I’ve never read before
26 – a book about science
27 – a book received as a gift

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