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On the Move

A Life

By Oliver Sacks
18-minute read
Audio available
On the Move  by Oliver Sacks

On the Move (2015) is a poignant memoir that tells the story of how Oliver Sacks became an acclaimed writer and neurologist. Published the year of his death, it provides a wistful account of his turbulent young adulthood – detailing his struggle with addiction and addressing his sexuality for the first time in print.

  • Fans of Oliver Sacks   
  • Readers interested in medical writing
  • Anyone who likes a good coming-of-age story

Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist and writer who spent most of his career in the United States. After receiving his medical education at Oxford University, he worked at various hospitals in San Francisco and New York City. He specialized in working with patients with unusual neurological conditions. Many of his books were based on case studies about those patients. They include Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He also wrote about his own unusual neurological experiences in his books such as No Leg to Stand On and The Mind’s Eye.

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On the Move

A Life

By Oliver Sacks
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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On the Move  by Oliver Sacks
Synopsis

On the Move (2015) is a poignant memoir that tells the story of how Oliver Sacks became an acclaimed writer and neurologist. Published the year of his death, it provides a wistful account of his turbulent young adulthood – detailing his struggle with addiction and addressing his sexuality for the first time in print.

Key idea 1 of 11

A Taste for Literature

The year was 1950, and Oliver Sacks was 17. Traveling by himself, he’d just completed a cross-country skiing excursion in Norway, and he was about to board a ferry to return to England. At the duty-free shop by the harbor, he purchased some souvenirs to take home with him: a pair of two-liter bottles of aquavit – a strong Scandinavian spirit, ominously labeled “100 proof.” 

But then Oliver ran into a little problem. At border control, the Norwegian customs officers informed him that he was only allowed to bring one bottle of liquor into the UK. They were fine with him leaving the country with a second bottle, but their British counterparts would confiscate it upon his arrival to England.

What should he do? 

Well, sitting on the ferry’s upper deck in the frigid North Sea air, Oliver started drinking from one of the bottles to help keep himself warm. The other passengers had all taken shelter inside the cabin; Oliver was alone. But that was fine. He had his novel to read. And not just any novel, but Ulysses – James Joyce’s 700-page masterpiece.

He became so absorbed in the book that he didn’t notice the passage of time – or the depletion of the aquavit, which he was gradually draining sip by sip. Before he knew it, the ferry had arrived in England, and the bottle was empty. But Oliver felt completely sober. The alcohol must not be as strong as it claimed to be, he thought. 

He stood up – and immediately fell on his face. He was completely drunk. 

This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen for a book. A couple of years earlier, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row had inspired him to want to become a marine biologist – the same profession as one of the novel’s main characters. Later, his interests shifted to neurology. But though he always had a scientific bent, Oliver also had a deep love of stories and storytelling. 

Part of it came from his mother. When he was a child, they spent hours at a time together reading classic books by British authors like D. H. Lawrence, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens. When he was a bit older, he read the American novels of James Fenimore Cooper, along with narrative-driven books about science, such as Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. And as a teenager, he became president of his secondary school’s literary society – a much more illustrious position than the one we left him in, lying flat on his face on the ferry’s upper deck. 

Fortunately, one of the boat’s crewmen found him there and helped him hobble off the boat with the aid of his ski poles, which he used as makeshift crutches. 

But although he couldn’t even stand up on his own two feet, Oliver felt triumphant – as if he’d won a victory over the system. As much as they might have enjoyed it for themselves, British customs wouldn’t be confiscating that second bottle of aquavit after all.

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