Top positive review
One last stroll through the Sacks intellectual flower garden
Reviewed in the United States on April 23, 2019
It feels poignant to review this last collection of Oliver Sacks’s essays, published four years after his death. It’s a measure of how intellectually voracious and prolific the man was that it took four years before the corpus of his work was exhausted. But Sacks has written so much about so many different topics that his voice will continue to speak to us in spirit if not in person. As with his previous essay collections, "Everything in Its Place" feels like taking a walk through a garden of intellectual delights.
The essays in this collection span the same range of diverse interests that marked out Sacks as one of the most eclectic thinkers and writers of his time. They are divided into three parts – the first part deals with childhood and family, the second deals with neuroscience and the kinds of fascinating case studies which made him famous, and the last contain miscellaneous thoughts about his interests and family.
In the first section you see him writing about a lifelong love of swimming – he bought a house midway through a swim once – childhood experiments with cuttlefish that led to an embarrassing incident with putrefied ocean life in a friend’s basement, another lifelong love of museums exemplified by visits to the great South Kensington museums of geology and natural history, a marvelous paean to the chemist-poet Humphrey Davy, and a somewhat bittersweet contemplation of libraries in which he laments the replacement of so many great paper books by impoverished online versions (curiously, although he mentions the great libraries at Oxford, he does not mention the great New York Public Library in which he must surely have spent countless hours).
In the second section he dwells with characteristic humanity and curiosity on patients with neurological challenges. In doing this he goes beyond simple descriptions of disorders like Alzheimer’s diseases and depression. He describes how Alzheimer’s, as gut wrenching as it is for both patients and in particular for their families, is increasingly seen as a reorganization of the brain rather than a simple degeneration where patients connect with areas of the brain which have been previously enveloped by layers of complexity. Under the right circumstances, Alzheimer’s patients can be every bit as alert and responsive to specific stimuli as anyone else. Another related essay talks about kuru, an infectious variant of Alzheimer’s. There are short musings on annoying but relatively curious problems like hiccups and various assorted tics. And an enlightening chapter on the history of mental asylums which shows far we have come in treating the mentally ill with dignity.
The third and last section speaks of many of Sacks’s personal loves; gardens, gefilte fish, the periodic table and the discovery of superheavy elements, a trip to Colorado Springs and a mesmerizing interaction through a glass panel with an orangutan. The final chapter which was published in the New Yorker recently is poignant and leaves one feeling sad. It laments the lack of human connection engendered by our obsession with devices, and Sacks talks about how depressed he feels when he sees everyone who was previously nodding, smiling and talking on the streets of New York lost in their devices and screens, seduced by pieces of fleeting information. Sacks is not a Luddite, but he does question the coming of technology that seems to sap us of our human and emotional connections.
I would say this last chapter would have been a pessimistic note to end on, if it hadn’t been for Sacks’s feelings about science as a saving grace for us, and a final note of hope that humanity will continue to endure: “As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe this – that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.” Even as he bids us goodbye in this final essay collection, Sacks’s writings will continue to inform, stimulate and inspire as long as men and women read, listen to music, care for loved ones and revel in the excitement of science.