The SciFri Book Club Talks Oliver Sacks’ ‘On the Move’
After three weeks spent reading, the SciFri Book Club is back! Last month, the Book Club joined special-guest readers Maria Popova and Danielle Ofri in picking up Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move.
Sacks’ story took us from the weight-lifting platforms of California’s Muscle Beach to the jellyfish-infested waters of his beloved City Island. We witnessed Sacks’ struggles in the lab (dropping hamburger crumbs into his centrifuge, misplacing a crucial sample) and his triumphs in the clinic (witnessing the “awakenings” of his post-encephalitic patients). We listened to his favorite music, took a peek at his library, and even took a tour of the ferns and cycads that he loved at the New York Botanical Garden. Now the SciFri Book Club returns to discuss On the Move, and lessons from a life well-lived.
Maria Popova is the editor and founder of BrainPickings.org and a MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.
Danielle Ofri, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician at Bellevue Hospital, an author, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review.
Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Oliver Sacks made his name as a writer and neurologist by bringing readers into the lives of his patients. There was Rose R., of his book Awakenings, frozen by sleeping sickness at the age of 21. And then suddenly awakened at 64. There was the lost mariner, Jimmy G., memoryless and stuck in 1945. And who could forget Doctor P., the man who mistook his wife for a hat.
But in his 2015 book On the Move, Oliver told a different story. This time his own. And for the past three weeks, the SciFri Book Club has been reading Dr. Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. We’ve ridden cross country with him on his beloved BMW bike. We swam with him in the jellyfish-infested waters around New York’s City Island. And now we’re back in the studio to talk about On the Move.
And if you’ve been reading along with us, give us a call. Tell us your favorite On the Move story. Our number 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or if you want to do it online, you can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Let me reintroduce our book club guests here.
Danielle Ofri is a physician at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at NYU’s School of Medicine. She’s editor in chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, and author of books, including What Doctors Feel. Welcome, Dr. Ofri. Good to see you again.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Maria Popova is the editor and founder of brainpickings.org. Welcome back, Maria.
MARIA POPOVA: Always fun.
IRA FLATOW: And SciFri producer Annie Minoff, the chief of the book club, is back. Hi, Annie.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, well, thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Let me start with you, and tell us, for book club newbies, give us a little synopsis on On the Move, what the book is about.
ANNIE MINOFF: Well, that’s quite a task, because this is a book–
IRA FLATOW: It’s a giant book.
ANNIE MINOFF: –that covers Oliver Sacks’ life from about age 18 to 80. So I’ll just zero in on a few different strands here. And I think one of the most important stories that this book tells is the coming out story. As Maria’s actually written on Brain Pickings, this is the story of a young gay man in the 1960s looking for love. And it’s sometimes a very heartbreaking story, sometimes very joyous.
I think there’s elements of travelogue in this book as well. So you mentioned the cross country motorcycle rides on the back of his beloved BMW R60. I would actually lump the drug trips in there as well, these kind of terrifying voyages of the mind that he writes about. So it’s a story of drug addiction and recovery. It’s also the story, I think, of a young doctor and a writer really kind of discovering himself in the clinic and discovering himself in interactions with patients and in telling their stories.
IRA FLATOW: And Maria, you’ve call this one of the most profound reading experiences of your life. What hit you so hard about this book?
MARIA POPOVA: The completeness of it. It’s such a beautiful record of a really unusual and extraordinary human being coming to terms with his wholeness.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. And it goes through the whole book that way? I mean, it goes through so many parts of his life.
MARIA POPOVA: And you can begin to see how they inform one another, how they’re in constant dialogue with one another over time. And in very kind of intimate and imperceptible ways that actually inform what he’s known for, his medicine, his writing, his whole personhood.
IRA FLATOW: But it’s also the physical part that no one knew about, really realized, isn’t it?
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Danielle, what was your first impression of the book?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Most of know Dr. Sacks as an avuncular elder statesman of a physician and writer. So to see him in this full three dimensions of his sexuality, his drug use, his weight lifting, motorcycle use, the three dimensions of his family, all parts that we didn’t really know about. And I was particularly taken by how hard it was for him to find his niche in the world. Whereas most of us knew him as having created and capitalized and been this sort of patron saint of the niche of the doctor/writer. In fact, it took him a long time to carve that out.
IRA FLATOW: Well, wherever he went in those niches, he really– he was outstanding in those little niches.
ANNIE MINOFF: And yet, people didn’t realize that for a long time.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Nor, did he. I think he felt himself bumbling about, kind of befuddled as he went through these. And didn’t realize that he was creating these niches.
MARIA POPOVA: But the interesting thing is that the niches came together. There were like puzzle pieces that he finally was able to put together into the complete picture of what he stood for and who he was.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: But I think he didn’t plan it that way, and that, for me, was one inspiring takeaway message, that he didn’t plan the life to become the neurologist, the itinerant doctor, writer. But he came upon these. And I think it gives us a lot of hope about the role of serendipity in our lives.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Our phone number, if you’d like to join us in our discussion of Oliver Sacks’ book, On the Move, our phone number 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. Or you could do the 844-SCI-TALK part. Annie, you spoke with the Oliver’s long time collapse Kate Edgar about why he finally sat down to write down On the Move. Like he was in his 80’s, right?
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s right. And it’s worth noting that this is actually Oliver Sacks’ second autobiography. So he came out with the book Uncle Tungsten in 2001, and that covered his childhood up to about age 14. But according to Kate, you know, who’s been Oliver’s sounding board and editor for more than 30 years, he always said that there wasn’t going to be a part two. That frankly, he wasn’t really interested in revisiting his ’20s, his ’30s. And then he turned 80.
KATE EDGAR: At the age of 80, I think he felt that it was time to just come clean with his whole story. And I think he also realized that if he didn’t write his autobiography, someone else would write a biography of him. And he wanted to just set the record straight.
ANNIE MINOFF: Which he does in this book. But another question that I had for Kate is, something that really struck me about On the Move is how intensely personal it is. And you almost feel like he’s forgetting that you’re reading.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s true.
ANNIE MINOFF: And she said that, in fact, a lot of the very personal sections of the book where he’s talking, for example, about his sexuality, or even kind of tense situations with his medical bosses, that he really wrote those for himself and didn’t even think that he might publish them. And it really took writing them and seeing how they all came together as a whole that really started to change his thinking.
KATE EDGAR: Once he could look at the book as a whole, with all of these parts in it, he felt that it had an integrity. And he felt much bolder about putting himself out there to the world. That was very, very important for him to be accepted, not only for the brilliant physician and writer he was, but as a whole person.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I think that’s what Maria was touching on in terms of the completeness. Like, we do get the whole person in this book.
IRA FLATOW: So let’s go to the phones. We have some phone calls coming in. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Jacksonville, Florida. Peter, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
PETER: Hi, thank you. I was interested in his comments about the way his papers were received in The Lancet and in JAMA. He seemed to think that his papers were received very favorably in The Lancet, based on the feedback that he received. But he said that he received almost no feedback from the papers he published in JAMA.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Danielle, any comment?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Well, I wonder if it was the different background of American versus British physicians. And if you look at The Lancet even today, it’s much more widely inclusive of other kinds of writings– artistic, creative, political writings. Whereas America journals are much more straightlaced and I think came much later to the game in terms of medical humanities, medical humanism.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Let’s go to another call. Let’s go to Kathleen in– is it Chagrin Falls, Ohio?
KATHLEEN: It is.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead, join us.
KATHLEEN: Thank you. As I read this book, I thought I was reading the story of one of the kindest people who must ever have lived. I think he made decisions based on what would bring more love into the world, and never left.
IRA FLATOW: Maria Popova is shaking her head up and down, agreeing with you wildly.
MARIA POPOVA: Yes. And actually, one of the loveliest stories from the book is a moment in which he chooses compassion and kindness over vengeance. Should we tell the story?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, yeah.
MARIA POPOVA: So it’s in the ’60s in his motorcycle days, and his telling the story of how motorcyclists were kind of– there was a bias against them. And drivers would sometimes intimidate them to a point of threatening their lives. And sure enough, that happened to him on two occasions.
In the first one, he caught up with the driver, poked his hand through the window, got the guy’s nose and twisted it. And he kind of felt gratified, and he felt that it was commensurate with the guy having almost killed him. Shortly thereafter, he’s on the freeway and another card tries to run him off the road. And he catches up to the car and kind of chases it down, this little town. And the car gets stuck in a cul-de-sac.
And so he gets out of the motorcycle, waving a monopod, because this was in his photography days too, and looking like this crazed Don Quixote on a horse. And he comes up to the window and he looks inside, and he sees four terrified teenagers, two couples. And he drops the monopod and shrugs his shoulders and walks away.
And it’s this moment in which you get the sense of his extraordinary ability to see inside another mind and anticipate another experience. On top of his own humanity of having been so enraged, he choose love and kindness.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s the empathy he brought to his patients that we learn about. How we could get inside them, as opposed to staying aloof from them. Danielle, do you have a favorite story?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Well, along those lines, one of my many favorite stories is when he, in his motorcycle days as a resident in California, one of his patients who’s dying, paralyzed and blind, just wants to be out at the sunrise. And so he gets is motorcycle buddies and they take this paralyzed woman onto his motorcycle, strap her to him and to the motorcycle. And he takes off drives her overnight to see the sunrise, I think, at the Grand Canyon.
And of course, when he comes back, he’s broken all protocol and he gets yelled at. But he gave the patient the gift of what she really wanted– to take care of someone is different than curing them or giving medical care. And I think he saw the expansiveness of that. And his empathy and recognition of what being human is.
IRA FLATOW: Annie.
ANNIE MINOFF: But he also takes himself, I think, to task for those failures of kindness. So he writes a lot about his brother Michael who suffers from schizophrenia. And he talks about sometimes when he was living at home with Michael, just wanting to get out, wanting to escape. And he talks about how might things had been different if I’d just offered, hey, Michael, let’s go see a movie, or let’s go to a concert. Things that his brother might not have done on his own volition. And you can hear the pain in his writing for these– something he failed to do 60 years ago. And I was really struck by that.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s going to Gypsy in Oklahoma City. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
GYPSY: Hi. Thank you for a lively talk. My [INAUDIBLE] was that in reading the book, I was struck by how successful his mother and father and some of his brothers were, and how that seemed to make him feel less than sometimes. And so I thought it was touching how it seemed to make him question his own success so many times.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Did you get that impression too?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Mm-hmm. And I wondered if that was one of the reasons he didn’t want to write his autobiography. I felt that he seemed shy, but also that he didn’t feel like he did that much. That there wasn’t enough to really write about. And I think only the convincing of others around him that his accomplishments were that significant make him finally decided to write.
IRA FLATOW: Gypsy, did you have any trouble reading? Was it a page turner for you, or did you put it down, pick it up?
GYPSY: Well, there were parts that seemed to me seemed a little bit too obsessive, too much into his own writing. But then there were other parts that were– it was like a page turner, like you say.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Yeah, it is the kind of book that you could put down for a while, pick it up, and pick up his story. Because it does flow just like his life did, you know. Very personally written.
I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday, from PRI, Public Radio International. If you’re just joining us, we’re in our book club. It has convened. Our number 844-724-8255. With Danielle Ofri, Maria Popova, Annie Minoff talking about Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. Let’s talk a little bit more about the book. I know, Maria, that you did some bodybuilding in college. And you know, there’s that part that none of us knew about in Oliver’s life, what a bodybuilder he was. And he holds the California record for what, 600– lifting 600 pounds?
MARIA POPOVA: Squatting.
IRA FLATOW: Squatting. That’s the difference I know.
MARIA POPOVA: But I should say that bodybuilding and weightlifting are entirely different.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: He was a weight lifter.
MARIA POPOVA: He was a weight lifter. But both of these sports require a tremendous discipline. Driven by an almost scientific obsessiveness. You have to be pretty cognizant of and knowledgeable about anatomy to train well. You have to be knowledgeable at nutrition down to biochemical level to feed yourself. And I think that obsessiveness and that discipline stays with you, even after you’re done competing. With Dr. Sacks, certainly in his writing, you can see the same kind of purposefulness and drivenness.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s what our caller– we have a caller, Matthew from Cincinnati, on the phone. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
MICHAEL: Hi. Thanks for letting me call in. It’s a really great honor to be speaking, and especially on the subject of Oliver Sacks and this book. I just wanted to make a quick comment about his interdisciplinary nature. I think it’s undervalued in the sciences and humanities. And it’s really what kind of pulled me into what I do now. I study kind of in a broad range of fields. And that was partly because someone had thrown an Oliver Sacks book at me when I was in my early ’20s.
IRA FLATOW: No kidding? Wow.
MARIA POPOVA: Well, it’s wonderful. Actually, I recently went through the many books that he mentions in his book, the book that influenced him and his life. And it really is so eclectic. He loves poetry and philosophy and a lot of science, a lot of travel logs from early explorers. And you can begin to see how this cross disciplinary mind fed itself.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: One thing I noticed is that he gave himself a relative freedom from institutional medicine academia. And most people in academia now are very narrowly focused, because you have to be. You have to publish, you have to write in that area and get grants. But I think that Dr. Sacks by– and maybe wasn’t intentional, but by freeing himself of this was able to cross disciplines without getting much flack.
ANNIE MINOFF: I want to follow up a little bit on that because, Danielle, one of the things I started to wonder as I read the book was how would Oliver Sacks do as a young doctor today, if you was say, 30? How would he find the medical profession?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: I don’t think– I can’t imagine how he would survive today. I mean, most physicians, all of us, need to see a certain number of patients to keep the economics of our practice or hospital afloat. And to sit and wax poetic for an hour on one case, it’s a luxury that we don’t have now.
And the places you do find it, I think that medical students are still in the realm where they can do that. And maybe as a student, he might have found his spot. But it would be very hard in practice to be able to have that freedom of academic thought.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’re going to take a break. That’s a good point. And come back more and talk lots more about Oliver Sacks with MARIA Popova, Danielle Ofri, and our SciArts producer Annie Minoff. So stay with us. We’ll go right back after the break.
Our number, if you’d like to get in on the book club, absolutely. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Well be watching for your tweets. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. It’s our SciFri book club. And with me in the studio are Maria Popova, editor of brainpickings.org, Danielle Ofri, author and physician at Bellevue Hospital here in New York, editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, and SciArts producer Annie Minoff. Our number, 844-724-8255.
ANNIE MINOFF: Ira, I just want to jump in, because I have a question for Maria, which is, I mentioned that Oliver began writing the book at 80. And I just wondered, is that significant? Would it have been a different book had he written at, say, middle age?
MARIA POPOVA: Well, I think 80 is definitely some kind of singular precipice, because Henry Miller wrote a book called On Turning 80, lovely little book. And the poet Donald Hall just released Essays After 80. So there’s something–
ANNIE MINOFF: So it becomes a requirement at a certain age.
MARIA POPOVA: Yes. But generally speaking, I think as we age, the gap between our private self and our public persona begins to narrow, when we expend less energy on people pleasing and pretzeling ourselves into who we’d like to be perceived as. And I think, we spend the vast majority of our lives building our personal mythologies, these hopeful fictions of who we’d like to be. And the very last bit owning our truths. And that’s what he did so beautifully that I don’t think he could have done if he was busy–
ANNIE MINOFF: Worrying about other people.
MARIA POPOVA: –people pleasing and all of that.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: I saw it a little differently. I thought about the presence of illness as what gave him the window and impetus. And perhaps if he had been ill at 40, that might have been the time, because illness gives us the earth shattering sense of our vulnerability. And the gap between who we think we are as physical bodies and who our bodies actually are narrows. Or widens, I should say. And maybe that sense of my body’s now doing things differently than I had hoped it would do perhaps gave him the impetus to start digging inward.
MARIA POPOVA: But he came so close to death on so many occasions, which is one of the most extraordinary things about the book, that you think perhaps he would have been aware of his destructability more so than the average person.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: That’s true. Though many of those were very acute episodic brushes with death.
MARIA POPOVA: And accidents.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: This was the decline where he could see what was happening. I remember one of his last letters he wrote to me, he talked about having a lot of fluid buildup from the liver disease, and knowing that I knew what that portended, and that he knew what that portended. That his end was in sight. And I suspected or predicted that that’s what gave him the impetus to really start opening himself up.
IRA FLATOW: And yet he was in great– I saw him a few months before his death. He was in great spirits. And even said, you know, I have a couple of more books in me. And Kate talked about this a little when we had our meeting at the botanical garden for our book club members earlier last week. And she said that there are. She has papers of his.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: That there’s going to be a book or two more coming.
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. And I should put a plug for the Oliver Sacks Foundation, which was launched to do that. There’s like a foundation now dedicated to doing that.
IRA FLATOW: Do you have a favorite part?
ANNIE MINOFF: A favorite On the Move story? I do. And it comes from a little later in the book, so no motorcycles. But Oliver is taking a walk, at night time walk through his neighborhood in Greenwich Village. And because he’s Oliver Sacks, of course, he has a little pocket spectroscope with him. So he’s looking through this device. And what this does is you point it at a light source and it’ll break up the light into its various spectral lines. So for example, you point this at neon and you’ll see this beautiful red streak.
And so he’s walking down the street peering at different light sources. And then he passes by a gay bar. And he starts looking through the window at all the neon inside, and slowly starts to realize that the patrons of the bar are like a little perturbed by this older dude looking at them through the window, through this little instrument.
And so what does he do? He strides into the bar and he declares, and I quote, “stop talking about sex, everyone. Have a look at something really interesting.”
And he passes around the spectroscope, and everyone’s, you know, ooh, aah. But why I love that story is it just shows you, this is a guy who, by his own account, was very shy and kind of didn’t chat easily with other people. But when it came to science, everyone was his friend. He brought people in with his enthusiasm, as he did that night at the bar, but also in every book he ever wrote. So that’s why I love that story.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. One of my favorite stories is the time he decided to swim. He swam everywhere around New York. And with the jellyfish in the water, no matter what. And he swam around City Island, and he goes out of the water. He sees a house he likes. He says, hmm. He goes up and knows on the door and says–
ANNIE MINOFF: Dripping wet.
IRA FLATOW: –dripping wet– I want to buy this place. And it sings to me because over 30 years ago, I learned to sail at City Island. And New Yorkers don’t even know that City Island is part of New York. So he was the first person I met who actually– and he was living there– actually was living on City Island and knew it was part of New York City. So it just kind of sung to me there.
But there are so many stories. Let’s see if we can take a couple of phone calls in before we have to go. Let’s go do Williamsburg, Iowa. Teri, are you there?
TERI: I am.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there, welcome.
TERI: That was a great book. My question is, Dr. Sacks wrote a great deal. He wrote letters, journals, manuscripts. I know you said that there were going to be a couple of books that will be coming out, but what is going to happen to the remainder of those– photos, things like that?
IRA FLATOW: That’s a good question. Maybe the foundation, the Oliver Sacks Foundation.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, that might be a question–
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah, Kate Edgar is working on two books forthcoming. And who knows what else they’re going to find in his enormous archive.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, ’cause see– thanks for calling. Because we know from the video that we did, the desktop diary of his, that he loved tchotchkes. He loved little desktop things and toys that he’s play with. So there’s a lot of stuff still that might be showing up, people might be able to look at. Maybe there will be a little exhibit of his some place.
Do we have a– as we come toward the end of this book club, do we have any conclusions about the book? I mean, something that’s–
ANNIE MINOFF: Any life lessons learned?
IRA FLATOW: Exactly. Life lessons learned about how to live. Did it make you think about living your life any differently?
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: It did. I noticed that Oliver Sacks saw the drama in small things. That the smallest change in a patient’s behavior, the idea that every patient was extraordinary. Even if the disease was known, understood, the patient themselves, each one was different and extraordinary. And that the smallest fern or snail or coin on the street was its own drama. And that to stop and notice. And for me, I get so overwhelmed and busy with minutia, the idea of taking the time to take the spectroscope and to look at the light, and tune out everything else for the moment is a lesson from Oliver Sacks.
MARIA POPOVA: And related to that, and related to Annie’s favorite story, science was the social lubricant, because he felt a sense of competence in it. And competence always grants confidence. And science was also the part of his identity that was always rewarded as opposed to punished since he was a child.
He had no self-consciousness around it. He had no guilt. Only this radiant enthusiasm. And I think anything we deliver in the language of enthusiasm enlarges our experience, enlarges other people’s experience.
IRA FLATOW: Annie, anything for you?
ANNIE MINOFF: I would take away just his strong self-concept. I mean, this is a man, his first book, Migraine, he wrote based on the experience of patients in a migraine clinic. His boss at the time let him know, in no uncertain terms, that if he published this book it would be the end of his medical career in the United States, for convoluted reasons we won’t get into. But he goes ahead and publishes it, because he knows it’s the right thing to do. And he stands by it. And I think a lesser writer, a lesser person would have not done that. So I think it’s a lesson to us all to listen to ourselves a bit more.
IRA FLATOW: I think, for me, it’s also that, just the title, On the Move, shows that life has a lot of different directions you go in. And you never know– he never knew where that next turn, literally on his motorcycle, was going to be.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: And he was open to serendipity. And I think many of us are not.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And he took those turns and went with them, and made the best out of them. And that’s what we all would hopefully be able to do.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. Good book.
MARIA POPOVA: Fantastic book.
IRA FLATOW: It’s a great book. And you can catch on the book club, you can read an excerpt from On the Move and listen to an Oliver Sacks playlist. That’s at sciencefriday.com/bookclub. We’ll be deciding, Annie, on another book pretty soon?
ANNIE MINOFF: Come July. Stay tuned.
IRA FLATOW: Come July, stay tuned. Annie Minoff is our SciArts producer and in charge of the book club. Also thank you to Danielle Ofri, author and physician at Bellevue Hospital here in New York, editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, where the doctors write the articles.
DR. DANIELLE OFRI: Actually, all kinds of people write. But it’s about health and healing.
IRA FLATOW: There you go. And Maria Popova, editor of brainpickings.org. Always good to see you too.
MARIA POPOVA: Always a pleasure.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much for joining us.
MARIA POPOVA: Thank you.