Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales
“Sacks is a humanist author, one who has an amazing capacity to inspire awe and reawaken the reader to the beauty of the smallest and often most unforgotten, disenfranchised aspects of life on earth. Above all, his greatest strength is how he skillfully allows the non-specialist to deeply delve into the field of neurological study.”
If you are not already familiar with the writing of Oliver Sacks, this volume is a lovely way to acquaint yourself with it. Released posthumously, this book is his 16th full-length publication. His most famous work, Awakenings, was made into a full-length movie starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro.
If, however you are already a fan of this prolific author, you may find that much of the material is not new as only six of the 33 articles are previously unpublished. The remaining essays, most of which are listed as “reworked” or having appeared in a “slightly different form,” come from a range of journals and magazines with the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker topping the list.
The volume is divided into three sections: First Loves, Clinical Tales, and Life Continues.
First Loves provides a glimpse into the formative stages of Sacks’ life introducing the reader to his childhood passions and his unfettered precociousness. Its six essays sing of his bewilderment and joy of learning: learning to swim, learning about the natural world from museums, learning about scientific discovery, the brain, libraries, and the poetry of chemistry. These childhood and youthful reminiscences introduce the sparks that fueled Sacks’ lifelong achievements.
Clinical Tales, the second section, is a whimsical collection of 15 essays drawing upon his over 30 years of experience as a neurological specialist. Each essay is a sensitive yet also sometimes humorous explanation of a unique or quirky topic. Most interestingly, the chapters take into consideration not only the scientific and medical aspects of each case, but also the humanistic viewpoint of the patient, doctor, and caregivers involved.
For example, “Cold Storage” tells the tale of re-awakening Uncle Toby, a “silent motionless figure in a corner,” a “waxlike figure,” cold to the touch, whose cerebral functions “had been out for seven years.”
“Seeing God in the Third Millennium” speaks of the medical explanation behind “out of body” and life altering religious experiences during epileptic seizures. The comical yet moving “Travels with Lowell” outlines a trip to “an almost mythical place, in far northern Canada, where there is an . . . extended Mennonite family that has had Tourette’s among them for at least six generations.”
“The Lost Virtues of the Asylum,” the final chapter of this section, is a powerful essay on the history of the mental asylum in the United States. Starting with an evocative explanation behind the original purpose of such institutions, Sacks goes on to investigate how they have changed dramatically. The essay ends with an urgent call to reexamine how mental health patients are currently mistreated, calling for systemic reform so that they “may be enabled to live satisfying and productive lives.”
Life Continues, the third section, consists of 12 short essays, all contained within 50 pages. It is a collection that speaks of wisdom, wonder, and the future by one who is moving into the final stages of his life. Sacks’ writing is still filled with the joy of discovery, yet at this time, it is also rife with the sagesse of life experience.
His “Botanists on Park” tells of his love of ferns while simultaneously questioning issues related to global warming and ecology. “Reading the Fine Print,” while commenting on his failing eyesight, questions the loss of print media over electronic versions. “Why We Need Gardens extolls the joy of horticulture but poignantly reflects on the need for our urban culture to experience more of nature.
The book concludes with a chapter on the future of our species. Referencing writers Philip Roth and E. M. Forster, astronomer Martin Rees, and Pope Francis, it calls for an immediate look into our overuse of social media. Sacks cautions that we are bringing upon ourselves “a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.”
The author concludes the book with the following:
“Though I revere good writing and art and music, it seems to me that 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. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue and this will not be our final hour.”
Sacks is a humanist author, one who has an amazing capacity to inspire awe and reawaken the reader to the beauty of the smallest and often most unforgotten, disenfranchised aspects of life on earth. Above all, his greatest strength is how he skillfully allows the non-specialist to deeply delve into the field of neurological study. He is an author with a sense of constant questioning and bewilderment at the complexity of human existence. His writing is beautifully crafted and profound.
Unfortunately, his is a voice that is no longer with us.