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On the Move - Oliver Sacks ****

I’m rather ashamed to say that this is the first book that I have read by Oliver Sacks, despite being a regular consumer of popular science books. Sacks, now in his 80’s and suffering from terminal cancer, has written some classics of popular science, but I somehow have never gotten around to reading them. After reading On the Move, a memoir of his life and his life in science, more of his books will make their way on to my reading list.

Sacks has an engaging and fluid writing style and is a great storyteller. He is also refreshingly honest about his own conditions (for instance, Sacks suffers from prosopagnosia, known popularly as 'face blindness') and is as frank about his experimentation and subsequent drug addiction as he is about his shyness, a trait that has led him to live alone for much of his life. 

In On the Move he writes of his social awkwardness as a factor that led to his great interest in science, eventually becoming a keen amateur chemist as a child. He also refers to his parents careers in medicine as a spur to him and his siblings to pursue careers in science. The book has interesting and, in some parts, frightening stories about cruel headmasters during his time in the countryside during the war. Not all of the stories about his education are this way; his anecdote about the Oxford entry examination is entertaining and impressive. I also enjoyed his descriptions about how he made his way between clinical work and research and back again. An intriguing insight into how scientists sometimes struggle to find the right place for their interests and abilities.

While Sacks has been accused of turning his patient histories into bestselling books, and eventually into successful Hollywood films, I didn’t get the impression that he is a callous or unsympathetic person. He writes of the moral turmoil he felt about entering into the world of popular publishing and the pains he has taken during his career to get the stories of his patients afflictions right. He also discusses at length his goal of placing the focus on the maladies of his patients and presenting the afflicted person in the best light possible. His empathy for his patients, in my opinion, comes through clearly.

Sacks’ range of interests is also staggering, both cerebral and physical. He has certainly led a full and interesting life. I think many, like me, who have not read his previous works will find On the Move an excellent introduction to the man and his works. 

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Review by Ian Bald

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