Read ‘On the Move’ With the #SciFriBookClub
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.
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Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.
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.
ANNIE MINOFF: Exactly.
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.