Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (Oliver Sacks) - Book Review
Reviewed by Alastair Reith, Magdalen College
Unless his lost manuscripts are rediscovered, Everything in its Place will be the last iteration in a medico-literary career which, with the addition of this posthumous collection of essays, now extends over half a century. In his opening chapters, Oliver Sacks revivifies the early ‘50s, when he too was at medical school in Oxford; his favourite pub, the White Horse; weekend escapes to London for the museums. He remembers fondly the lost age of mahogany and glass, Pitt Rivers-style, before modernity and colour set in.
In his adopted America, his set of non-medical friends included the poets W. H. Auden and Thom Gunn. When he wrote—in two weeks—his first book, Migraine, his aunt said she always believed he would find his purpose through writing. Throughout his life, he was a man-of-letters as well as a man of medicine. As Everything in its Place progresses, autobiographical and clinical essays subtly transmute into poetic reflections and book reviews.
Reading Oliver Sacks, especially his latest works, is invariably mind-expanding. He can write with as much clarity and force about the natural world—revelling in the timelessness of the ginkgo tree, whose leaves all drop on the same day; the rolling waves on the cycad island of Rota; or the horseshoe crabs which carpet the beach outside his house—as he can write about the neurological world, compiling case-stories in the best tradition of neurologists from C. Miller Fisher to John Hughlings Jackson. Sacks has blended neurology, barely established as a discipline when his career began, with polymath charm and relatable real-life, taking it out of the conference-rooms of hospitals and into the living-rooms of the world.
The full range of his diversity is here in his final collection, bridging Cycad Island and Uncle Tungsten. Each essay is a diversion from the next, a fascinating sub-plot, a cluster of thoughts and ideas. There is a moment when, abstractly, he touches on wisdom, “the integration of vast amounts of information, the synthesis of a long lifetime’s experience”. Everything in its Place reads to me like a series of fragments of this underlying wisdom, snatched into prose where they have brushed the surface. It is a book to read and keep forever.