Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

Review by Ann Skea

Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales.
Oliver Sacks.
Pan Macmillan. 2019. 274 pp.
ISBN 978 1 5098 2179 2.

Those who knew Oliver Sacks as a practicing neurologist who wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which inspired a play and a popular film), were surprised when his memoir On The Move revealed his passion for motorbikes, extreme weightlifting, and, briefly and addictively, amphetamines. This new book, published four years after Sacks' death, offers more surprises and is as enjoyable and interesting as his earlier books.

True to its sub-title, its essays range from first loves to last tales, including memories, observations, stories, opinions, patient-studies and, amongst the final essays, written when he knew he was dying, a glowing appreciation for gefilte fish, "which will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it eighty-two years ago"; and a sad commentary on the way technology now monopolizes our attention and invades our privacy.

Looking back on his earliest childhood years, he remembers the start of his lifelong passion for swimming and notes that later, at the age of 43, when he was named "Top Distance Swimmer at the Mount Vernon Y in 1976-7," he had swum 500 lengths of the pool (six miles) and "would have continued, but the judges said "Enough! Please go home."

Another early love was biology, and he writes a hilarious account of the explosive, horribly smelly and messy result of a failed seaside holiday attempt to impress his school biology teacher by collecting and preserving dozens of cuttlefish.

Like Rudyard Kipling's mongoose, Rikki Tikki Tavi, Sacks seems always to have been "eaten up from nose to tail with insatiable curiosity." This was fuelled early on by the South Kensington Museums in London, where he haunted the Natural History Museum until staff got to know him and allowed him into the "private realm of the new Spirit Building," where specimens from around the world were sorted and identified.

The Science Museum had special interest for him, since it housed a display showing the Landau Miners' Lamp invented by his grandfather in 1869 and which, as the display label attested "displaced the earlier Humphrey Davey Lamp." But, for him, the real epiphany (as he puts it) was his discovery at the age of ten of the Periodic Table on the fifth floor: "...not one of your nasty, natty, modern little spirals, but a solid rectangular one covering a whole wall, with separate cubicles for every element and actual elements, whenever possible."

Science in all its forms became his life's interest, and reading, too, was all absorbing. He was lucky to grow up in a house where books of all kinds were valued and easily accessible, and "Whenever I was late for lunch I could be found so completely absorbed in what I was reading that all time would be lost." The local public libraries, including specialist libraries which he sought out, were where "I received my real education." And later, at Oxford, the ancient books in the Radcliffe Science Library, the Bodleian, and in the catacombs of Queen's College Library, introduced him to original research notes and old classics that gave him "a sense of history and of my own language."

As he got older, impaired vision hindered his reading, and in one impassioned essay he deplores the way e-books, audio-books and digitized texts have replaced "books with heft, with a bookish-smell" and books he could read in the bath. The severely restricted range of large-print books made him furious: "Did publishers think the visually impaired were intellectually impaired, too?"

An essay on asylums, which were once real places of refuge for those considered mad, is knowledgeable and fascinating. As is his chapter on "The Ageing Brain." He bases musings on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on his own scientific knowledge and reading. And the few case-histories he recounts, such as the case of finding a cure for persistent hiccups, and the effects of environment on a friend who suffers from Tourette Syndrome, are written with the same insight and sensitivity to the patients as was shown in his earlier books.

Some of the late essays, such as that on the gait of elephants, are curious. One close encounter with an Orangutan at the zoo is beautifully described. And the surprising vision of a dozen people "flattened against the enormous embankment of the Park Avenue railroad trestle, peering with magnifying glasses and monoculars into tiny crevices in the stone" simply demonstrates the huge variety of activities to which Sacks' insatiable curiosity led him: "We were assembled for a meeting of the American Fern Society," he explains. "And this is a perfect place to see chink-finding xerophytic ferns."

This book is varied and interesting and, although Sacks occasionally assumes his reader is familiar with scientific or medical terms, easy to read. Sacks tells his stories well.


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