I have been a fan of Oliver Sacks and his writing for decades. When that first beautiful NYT article came out in early 2015 and revealed he was dying from cancer, I essentially hid my head in the sand and refused to read anything else from him for a long time. He was warm and kind and insightful and passionate and I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye. The day of Anthony Bourdain’s death, I walked into my library and On the Move was sitting there on the staff recommendations shelf and I knew it was time. It was just time.
On the Move is the sweetest goodbye I have read, in a way. This autobiography skips around a little bit more than I was used to, with very long chapters that jump back and forth between the decades as Sacks explores a thread. Once I got used to the style, it felt more like his voice. Sacks reflects on his life, drifting around his life from his youth to his 80s. As expected, Sacks reminisces about his very interesting and well publicized career, but we learn more of his personal life than we have previously (except perhaps in Uncle Tungsten). I recall that when the book was released, much of the publicity focused on that delicious cover photo of a young Sacks on his motorcycle and his reveal of his homosexuality.
This is shallow of me to include, but young Dr. Sacks was a very attractive man.
Sacks reflects on his personal nature, how both his gifts and his limitations impacted his life, both in terms of his personal relationships and his professional career, and he is always careful to talk about how his mistakes were always useful learning opportunities. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of that by your heroes – mistakes are made, doubts are had, yet we move on.
My favourite thing about the book, however, is how Sacks is so careful to speak of his loneliness while also detailing the loving and respectful relationships he maintained for decades. Again and again, he talks about dear friends and colleagues, speaking of them respectfully and with enthusiasm. I was struck, as always, by his genuine interest in people and his abiding kindness. This book conveys how he saw every day as a learning opportunity, an adventure to be had, and just how much people matter.
The Acknowledgements page at the end was gracious, as always, and I was pleased that Sacks dedicated the book to Billy Hayes, his lover and dear companion for the end of his days. I was especially moved at the end of these with this:
Hundreds of people have been dear and important to me in the course of a long and eventful life, but only a few of them could be brought into the compass of this book. The others should be assured that I have not forgotten them, and that they shall reside in my memory and my affections until the day I die.
I think that is lovely. I think that even if he didn’t know about the cancer when writing the book, the author knew that his remaining time on the earth was likely to be short, and it was a way to say reflect on his life and thank the people who were part of it. This book, at the end, is a meditation on friendship, and I couldn’t wish for more in my own life than for my friends to think the same way about me.