Read ‘On the Move’ With the #SciFriBookClub

8:43 minutes

Last month, we asked you to vote: Which book should the SciFri Book Club read to celebrate the literary legacy of Oliver Sacks? One hundred seventy votes later, we have a winner: Dr. Sacks’ 2015 autobiography, On the Move: A Life.

Maybe you knew Oliver Sacks the doctor, best-selling author, SciFri guest, or cephalopod enthusiast. Well, with On the Move, get ready to meet Oliver Sacks the motorcyclist, weightlifter, son, lover, traveler, addict, and all-around Renaissance man. In On the Move, Sacks turns his prodigious powers of observation on himself, giving readers a privileged peek into a life well-lived.

Want to join the Club? Here’s how to participate:

  1. Get a copy of the book and start reading!
    Powell’s Books is offering On the Move: A Life for 30 percent off, if you use this LINK. As you read, share your thoughts with fellow Book Clubbers by using our hashtag, #SciFriBookClub, or by posting in the comments below. Still not sure if you want to jump in? Start with this excerpt from On the Move, about Sacks’ days weightlifting on Muscle Beach.
  2. Live in the NYC area? Join us for a SciFri Book Club Meetup and discussion at the New York Botanical Garden, Saturday February 6th.Learn more about our Meetup and reserve your spot, HERE.
  3. Take part in our wrap-up discussion of On the Move: A Life by calling in to the broadcast on Friday, February 12th. Discuss the book with Ira and special guest readers Dr. Danielle Ofri and Brain Pickings Maria Popova.

Questions about the Club? Post ‘em in the comments below or email bookclub@sciencefriday.com

Happy reading!

Segment Guests

Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Last Spring, a book arrived at our office. It was one of the new autobiographies from Oliver Sacks. His autobiography, you know, the famed neurologist and author?

Except the guy on the cover did not look like the Oliver Sacks that we all knew. This guy was wearing laced-up leathers, those bicycle, motorcycle leathers. He was sitting on top of a giant BMW motorcycle. A motorcycle, he looked strong enough to lift of the ground.

And then of course, Oliver Sacks, that was him in 1961, about. We just didn’t know about Dr. Sacks’ love for motorcycle racing, or about a lot of other stuff, it turns out, that he has written about in his autobiography.

And so, this winter, the SciFri Book Club is reading. We’re assigning that as our book club, his autobiography, Oliver Sacks’, On The Move. And we want you to join in that book club. And here to explain how you can is our SciFri Arts Producer, Ann Minoff. Hi, Annie. Welcome to Science Friday.

ANNIE MINOFF: Thank you for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this book that we’re choosing in the club.

ANNIE MINOFF: On The Move. Well I think, as you mentioned, that picture is really the only introduction you need. This is Oliver Sacks sitting atop his BMW hog.

And, really, this is kind of the other Oliver Sacks. The one who is always kind of flitting around the edges of those more scientific works, but who we really get to know in this book.

And, in fact, I’ll explain a little bit about our club, of course, for the newbies. What happens is, we give you three weeks to read this book, On The Move. And then we’re going to be joined back here in the studio on February 12 to talk about it with two very special guest readers.

And I’ll tell you about the first of those readers, Maria Popova, who, of course, you know very well. She comes on the show very frequently to talk about some of her favorite science books. And I should say that Maria has really tipped her hand on this one. Because she has been on our program not once, but twice in the past year to talk about how much she loves On The Move. As she does in this clip from when she was on our show back in July.

MARIA POPOVA: This book is not an autobiography in the strict sense. It’s more of a dialogue with time on several simultaneous scales. There’s the personal. We see him going from a world champion weightlifter to world renowned neurologist.

The cultural. He’s a young, gay man looking for love in the 1960s. Very different than our post-DOMA world.

And even the civilizational. His standing on the beach at City Island watching horseshoe crabs mate exactly as they did 400 million years ago on Earth’s primordial seas.

And I have to say, I don’t say this lightly, because I read a lot of books. Dozens a month. But this has been one of the most profound reading experiences of my life.

ANNIE MINOFF: So, a great introduction to On the Move from Maria Popova. And we’ll also be joined, in our discussion of this book, by Dr. Danielle Ofri. And she is a physician and writer based at Bellevue Hospital, here in Manhattan. She’s also the Editor in Chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, which is a literary review run by, and for, doctors.

So I’m very interested to hear what she will make of On The Move.

IRA FLATOW: And we have some free books to give away.

ANNIE MINOFF: Absolutely. Every time we do this club, we love to partner with Powell’s books. Our friends there have donated 20 brand-spanking new copies of On The Move hardcover, I should say. And we would like you, if you’re listening, to have a chance to win one of these and have them shipped to you for free.

And the way that you can enter to win one of those books from Powell’s is by going to our website, sciencefriday.com. You’ll see a big blue banner. Click on that. Fill out the form. That form is going to close at 10:00 PM tonight, so don’t put it off.

We’re going to be picking those winners at random, sending them a free book. And if you don’t win, Powell’s has the book on sale.

IRA FLATOW: They’ll give you a discount.


IRA FLATOW: Powell will give you a discount. You’ve waded through the book? You’re reading through the book?

ANNIE MINOFF: Absolutely. I have.

IRA FLATOW: It’s so surprising, the stuff in there.

ANNIE MINOFF: It really is. And kind of the surprise that many people have spoken about, is just how candidly he writes about growing up as a young gay man in London in the ’50s and then in the US in the ’60s. At a time when, in Britain, at least it wasn’t just kind of socially looked down upon to be gay, but it was actually illegal.

So he writes very movingly.

IRA FLATOW: Like Alan Turing, who was arrested.

ANNIE MINOFF: Absolutely. And he writes about Alan Turing and what he went through. So that’s, of course, very moving.

For me, one of the big surprises was to learn that this man, who we always knew as Dr. Sacks, also went by Dr. Squat on the weightlifting platforms on Muscle Beach, California. He was a massive and very successful amateur weight lifter.

IRA FLATOW: 600 pound record.

ANNIE MINOFF: 600 pound California State squat record. And you see a picture of this on our website. It’s absolutely amazing.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Annie Minoff about our book club.

I’ll tell ya, I knew him for oh, 20-25 years. And the first time I met him I was so surprised. I knew of his reputation.

And I stood next to him on a podium. And I’m just looking at his upper body, and he’s a man who is in his 50s or 60s by then. But he’s still bulked up.

So I said, who is this guy? He must have been a weight lifter. Ha ha ha. Some time ago and, sure enough, he was.

ANNIE MINOFF: It’s true. Yes. For me, one of the great joys of this book has been getting to know Oliver Sacks as a writer.

And he was a prolific, as we know, a prolific writer. Not just of books, but he estimates he wrote probably 1,000 clinical notes in a year. And he did this for decades.

Whenever he traveled, he would take a journal. Whether he was hitchhiking across America with his trucker friends, Mac and Howard in the 1960s. Or in Oaxaca, looking for rare ferns.

He would always take notes. And we really get the benefit of that in this book. And you really get a sense of the joy that he found in writing. So here’s Oliver Sacks actually reading from On the Move.

OLIVER SACKS: The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy unlike any other. In these rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then, do I realize that evening has come, and I’d been writing all day.

ANNIE MINOFF: You know, something I have to point out, also, about Oliver Sacks is he’s the only person I’ve ever heard of who wrote in the swimming pool.

IRA FLATOW: Under water?

ANNIE MINOFF: Not underwater. But he was a very avid swimmer. And he writes in the book about how whole sentences and whole paragraphs would come to him while he was swimming. And so, he would take a notepad to the pool and get up on the platform and just take some very soggy notes by the side of the pool.

IRA FLATOW: Just hearing his voice, it’s still too soon for me.

ANNIE MINOFF: One of the reasons we wanted to read one of his books is, you know, when he passed away late last summer, we did a tribute to him, of course, on the show celebrating his life. But we also wanted to celebrate this amazing literary legacy that he has left us. I mean, 14 amazing books.

So we actually put it up to a vote. We asked you, our listeners, what would you like to read from Dr. Oliver Sacks, and it was a squeaker.

It was real close. there are a lot of Musicophelia fans out there, I must say.

IRA FLATOW: And we’re going to have an event in the New York City area, right?

ANNIE MINOFF: That’s right. So in addition, of course, to joining us on air when we wrap up our book club, if you do live in the New York City area, you can meet up with us at the New York Botanical Garden. A very special place for Dr. Sacks. We’re going to be talking about the book with Dr. Danielle Ofri and Maria Popova.

We’re going to get a tour of the ferns and cycads that Dr. Sacks loved. And you can join us for that. It’s free on February 6. And to sign up, you go to sciencefriday.com slash meetup.

IRA FLATOW: And when do we meet up again for the book club?

ANNIE MINOFF: February 12, so you could mark your calendars. Take some notes as you’re reading. Call in, tell us what you thought. And, of course, keep the discussion going over these three weeks. We’re using the hashtag scifribookclub.

IRA FLATOW: And we have those free books. Couple of dozen free books we’re giving away.

ANNIE MINOFF: That’s right. Big blue banner on our website, sciencefriday.com.

IRA FLATOW: And a 30% discount on the book if you can’t get in on that. Thank you, Annie.

ANNIE MINOFF: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Annie Minoff is Sci Fri’s Sci Arts Producer. And you can learn more about the book club and enter, as I say, to win a free book at sciencefriday.com.

One last thing. I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but Spider Man would be too heavy in real life to be able to stick to walls. Cambridge University scientists calculate that he would have to have size 114 boots and 43 inch hands to provide enough stick ’em power to hold his weight.

He ain’t no gecko. But then again, how many scientists have been bitten by a radioactive spider? Think about it. Yeah.

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  • echochen

    YOUR form here does not work!

    • Steve Bull

      scroll down on the form, it was hidden from me until i figures this out.

      • echochen

        Oh yes, that’s so weird!
        thank you for your help!!!

        • intheforst

          Yes, I had trouble figuring it out, too.

  • Peggy Hartzell

    echochen I thought so too but you have to click on the words like “your answer ” not the space below.

  • Fredda Osman

    I just finished reading ON THE MOVE a couple of weeks ago and LOVED IT! His story, his style, his way of expressing himself – all so accessible – although, for me, the last section about color and perception was dense and difficult to wade through. Overall, however, this is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.

    What a genius! What a loss.

  • Wanderson Santos

    C`mon, how about free shipping to Brazil, huh? Got show us some love 😀

  • cloudskimmer

    From a review of the book, evidently Dr. Sacks wasn’t a motorcycle racer; instead he rode wildly on public streets, ignoring stop signs and endangering the public. I’m glad he survived to become a responsible person; he’s lucky he didn’t kill anyone, or himself. Even admirable people can be irresponsible at times, and it was alarming to find he’d been riding like a maniac on roads I traveled at the time.

  • Mia McAzan

    I am so excited about this book club! I received “Awakenings” and “Hallucinations” for Christmas. What an incredible mind! Now all I need is for NPR and Powell’s to hook me up with a copy of his autobiography! I love Science Fridays!

  • Lowell Stanley

    Someone remarked that when they died they wanted death to find nothing but a bundle of clothes, as everything of value had be used up. That pretty much sums up my take on Dr. Sack’s life, he lived it.

  • 13hm13

    An unimportant topic.

  • geraldfnord

    Sacks gives the impression that an allegation of abuse was manufactured to get him away from younger patients whose improvement under his treatment ‘showed up’ senior staff who had apparently given-up on them,
    0.) How well does this comport with the facts, to the extent that they were known?
    1.) Given the prejudice against gay men, who at the time were seen as prone to pæderasty (though that does not seem to be the case), did the trauma and fear of being liable to such allegations contribute toward his long celibate period that began soon after?

  • Tim Johnson

    I must admit that before seeing that NPR’s Science Friday had a book club and that the inaugural selection was On the Move, I had no idea who Oliver Sacks is. Working in the public library, I had seen Musicophilia come in a while back and its subject immediately piqued my curiosity. I was working on several other things at the time and so added it to my “To Read” list on Goodreads. Knowing a bit more about the eminent Mr. Sacks now it appears that there will be several other books I will have to add to the list.

    What I find most striking about Sacks is not his vast knowledge of neurology and a myriad of other subjects but his eye for people. He seems to me, to be one of those individuals who can see right into a person without losing his sense of the entire being. Medical science could use a few more like him.

    The book is not only a list of the events Sacks has witnessed, which span World War II to California culture in the 60s to the 21st century in New York. It is also, very much, a catalog of his relationships with a wide array of people, both in and out of the sciences.

    You’ll also find stories that make Sacks very human. Memoirs, real memoirs, are not works of self-aggrandisement. Sacks’ willingness to show less than dignifying moments makes him more accessible. For example, he relays a couple of examples of road rage from his early days as a motorcycle enthusiast. He chased down a vehicle that had almost knocked him off the road only to realize that it was just a bunch of scared kids. This brought to mind a similar incident I experienced. I once got so angry at someone on the road that I attempted to throw a large tea out the car window at another driver. Fortunately for both of us, the window was closed. The other driver got away without injury and I decided that I would no longer listen to heavy metal while driving and that road rage was stupid.

    He spoke of experimenting with drugs in the 60s and 70s and how, one time, he experienced a completely auditory hallucination. What was striking about it was that it took the form of a very mundane conversation with a pair of neighbors he thought were in his living room (he was in the kitchen preparing lunch). When he emerged he discovered no-one was there. For me, I had to have my neck rebuilt in the mid-90s. I was given morphine for the pain. I fell asleep while reading and dreamt, rather vividly, that I had read the entire book. When I awoke I found I was really only about 100 pages in. It was the most boring dream I have ever had.

    There is a lot about the endless number of subjects which have fascinated Sacks throughout his life. He has a style of writing that makes these complicated concepts understable for the average person (such as myself). I learned much more about neural mapping, Tourette’s, encephalitis, disassociated limbs, and color blindness than I thought possible just by merely touching on the subjects.

    All in all, Sacks has experienced an amazing life and it shines through in his writing. The moral of the story, however seems to be that it is a grave mistake to ignore signs such as “Beware of Bull.” If you haven’t read it, McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy has a very funny example of the consequences of ignoring a similar sign. Sacks’ own bull incident does not end with a snicker. It just amazes me that both men see the sign, comprehend what it means, and choose to think it a joke. Anyway, read the book and stay away from bulls!

  • LindaChuss

    This biography was as compelling as they get. As another reviewer noted, Sacks seems so human. Yet so unique and gifted at the same time. He appears to be a Forest Gump figure too, having known Francis Crick, Robin Williams, Al Capp, W. H. Auden and so many more notables. He had profound insights about the mind, perception, and life and was able to express them so well. Sacks also shared his foibles so you had what appeared to be a more honest and rounded portrait. Having only read two of his earlier books, I’m eager to read the others and even revisit those first two.