On the Move:  A Life describes the extraordinary life of Oliver Sacks from his childhood during World War II to shortly before its 2015 publication.  Using his journals (“nearly a thousand,” he writes), correspondence, and memories—as well as his 14 or so books—Sacks has given himself free rein to describe and analyze his long, productive, and unusual life.

A dozen chapter headings nominally corral his wide variety of interests, adventures, and travels, including his medical career, his homosexuality, and diverse writing projects.

Sacks came from an English medical family, including some observant Jews, but not him. As a youth he loved (prophetically) writing and chemistry. He rode motorcycles then and for many years to come. He did poorly on his Oxford practical anatomy exam but immediately (and drunk on hard cider) sat for a competitive essay on anatomy and won a large prize.  Later, he was warned away from bench science and focused successfully on patient care, patient narratives, and personal essays of many sorts, including A Leg To Stand On, the account of his injured leg and recovery.

Sacks left England for Canada, then the US.  He quotes from some of the journals about his travels. In LA, he worked out at Muscle Beach (setting a California squat record) and did drugs, including amphetamines. A shy man, he thought of himself as Doppelganger: Dr. Sacks by day, a black-garbed biker by night. 

Fascinated by vision and photography, Sacks includes 58 photos from the ’50s to 2006; some black and white, some in color.  These are printed together on slick paper and well illustrate his text.   

Neurology training concluded, Sacks served various institutions in New York but read widely, ever eager to find theories of brain chemistry, anatomy, perception, behavior, and more. As readers of his books know, he enjoyed using his own interests in drugs, music, and travel, as well as personal medical experiences such as his injured leg and his lack of facial recognition. He describes his meetings with patients with unusual dilemmas: the postencephalics of Awakenings, as well as people with Tourette’s syndrome, deafness, colorblindness, autism, or migraines. He became fascinated—obsessed, one might say—with these and wrote so voluminously that cuts had to be made from his huge manuscripts to yield books.

Sacks describes interaction with editors, film crews, playwrights and others wishing to collaborate. His audiences grew as he became an intermediary to the non-medical public. We read about Peter Brook, W. H. Auden, Jonathan Miller, Bob Silvers (New York Review of Books), the cartoonist Al Capp (a cousin), Abba Eban (another cousin), Stephen Jay Gould, Temple Grandin, Francis Crick, and others. One striking passage describes taking Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams to see locked-in patients in preparation for the film version of Awakenings.

In his 70s, his robust health faded. He had a melanoma in his right eye, with more than three years of treatment before it became blind. Being Sacks, he observed interesting phenomena as his vision changed, “a fertile ground of enquiry” (p. 376). His left knee was replaced. He had sciatica.   

He fell in love again after 35 years of celibacy; he dedicates his book to his partner Billy Hayes.


This is an entertaining and long— even sprawling, at near 400 pages—autobiography. It is a deeply personal and intimate account; I think of the Baudelaire title Mon coeur mis à nu (My heart laid bare).  Sacks tells us of turmoil with evil bosses and negative reviews and also of being in love. He defends his work from attacks as “not science” and from claims that he exploited patients. He tells his excitement of ideas developed in correspondence or conversation with other people. In sum, we have a portrait of a multi-talented and highly motivated man eager to extend his experience and develop large ideas about the mind, perception, and behavior.

Throughout, Sacks yearns for synthesis because he is rational yet irrational, both logical and emotional, calm and frenetic, on the move and placid, scientific and also literary. His view of the human mind is not the narrow view of subspecialists ramifying their way down to the narrowest factors. Rather, Sacks enjoys seeing totalities and understanding his patients as whole persons, whatever their neurological deficits. 

Late in the book he is excited by the work of Gerald M. Edelman, who saw whole-brain activity, not prededicated areas. “Thank God I have lived to hear this theory,” he writes (p. 363).  For Sacks, the brain has plasticity and opportunities for healing and growth.

And yes, there is humor. To become Commander of the Order of the British Empire, he travels to London. (He always maintained British citizenship.)  “I was half-afraid that I would do something awful, like faint or fart right in front of the Queen, but all went well”  (p. 383).

On the last page of the book, Sacks writes about his chart notes on patients:  “I wrote well over a thousand notes a year for many decades…my notes were lengthy and detailed, and they sometimes read, others said, like novels.” His assessment of his own life: “I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.”   


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York

Page Count