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Editor’s Choice: ‘On the Move: A Life’ by Oliver Sacks

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks, 397 pages ($27.95). On June 3, 1971, a little-known English emigre in America was reviewed by a much better known English emigre here whose attentions in the New York Review of Books were the sort of thing that most writers covet – W.H. Auden. Of Oliver Sacks’ “Migraine,” Auden told NYRB readers that doctor’s son Auden found the book “fascinating” even though he “has had the good fortune never to have experienced an attack.”

Neurologist Oliver Sacks was henceforth a writer to whom attention must be paid. He also became such a friend of Auden’s that on the occasion of Auden leaving America after 30 years here to return to England, the poet gave Sacks a copy of Goethe’s Letters that had been on Auden’s night table. (Auden admitted to Sacks that he was a “drunk” but denied being an alcoholic. An alcoholic, as Auden defined it, was one who “has a personality change after a drink or two” but a “drunk can drink as much as he wants. I’m a drunk.”)

Sacks’ work ever since made him, along with Lewis Thomas, the most honored physician/writer of our time. Auden told him that Sacks’ book “Awakenings” was a masterpiece. Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams would go on to star in Penny Marshall’s film version and become friends. The neurologist’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” was turned into an opera by Michael Nyman. Sacks’ terror-stricken flight from a menacing bull in Norway resulted in a torn “quadriceps tendon” and the very personal book “A Leg to Stand On.” “Musicophilia” is, for sure, one of the great books about the subject Sacks simply calls “music and the brain.”

In 2005, a “melanoma in my right eye … made its presence known.” Predictably, he became “fascinated by the varied phenomena which occurred” as a result. A replacement of his left knee left him bedridden for a while – no small matter for a man who, as a weightlifter back in 1961, lifted 600 pounds.

A new life partner arrived. And now, predictably perhaps, but by no possible means ignorably, we have the autobiography that his readers have awaited in what we have to assume in his life’s fourth act. One of the year’s most awaited books – Jeff Simon