Tuesday, May 26, 2015

On the Move

First Avenue and 73rd Street looking north at 2 p.m. on Memorial Day. Photo: DPC.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015. Beautiful, long holiday weekend in New York with temperatures reaching into the mid-80s but low humidity and very comfortable.

I spent a good part of the weekend finishing a book I’d started a week ago: “On the Move; A Life” (Knopf, publishers) by Oliver Sacks. I don’t know Oliver Sacks and I’d only read a couple pieces he’d written for the New York Review of Books. As well as a neurologist, scientist, he’s written several books about his interests and his work, one of which was made into a film starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, “Awakenings.” Another book of his, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat," was on the New York Times bestseller list for 43 weeks.
I was well aware of it but I never read it. I do not have an abiding interest in matters of science, be it medical science or any other area. Do I appreciate their discoveries and progress? Yes. Am I amazed? Yes. But in terms of personal interest, I would rather read a history of the men and women who built New York in the 1920s, the Jazz Age, as I did in the book I just finished — “Supreme City; How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America” by Donald Miller.  Or Balzac. When I got to the last 50 of Miller’s 580-page book, for example, I wished it would just go on for another 500; more to learn.
The Times Square theater district, circa 1920s. Popperfoto/Getty Images
It must have been “The Man Who Mistook ...” that made me aware of Dr. Sacks. It’s also a solid name in sound, and even visually on paper. More than ten years ago, JH and I saw him a couple of times, in passing, at parties that Jill Krementz and Kurt Vonnegut occasionally gave in Jill’s studio. There were always a lot of artists and especially authors present. Dr. Sacks stands out in a crowd with his solid bearing — white hair and beard and his thick barrel chested and muscled physique. Under those circumstances — a cocktail party — he appeared to stand alone, not really engaged in conversation. I wondered about his personality but wouldn’t approach him. He was a kind of genius in my book — with great knowledge in an area where I am almost knowledge-less — and a scientific one as well. Ironically, I learned from reading his memoir that he and I share a similar social diffidence — a not wanting to intrude, or to bore. It’s also often more interesting just to observe.
Lily Vonnegut, Oliver Sacks, and Jill Krementz in 2006. Photos Jeff Hirsch
Frank McCourt, Carol Muske Dukes, Dr. Oliver Sacks, Billy Collins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lisa Rosen.
Dr. Sacks "observing" Frank McCourt later that evening.
Then I read the review of “On the Move” written by Jerome Groopman in the NYRB, which intrigued me. An ebullient personality and intellect bursting with great interests, and pursuing them doggedly, compulsively, curiously, searchingly, daringly, and honestly. (He’s even interested in the syntax of sentences like this last one, since he too can’t resist a most thorough description.)

Click to order "On the Move."
Then I saw the book in the bookstall that is sometimes in front of Zabar's on Saturday. The cover was even more curious. An excellent marketing cover as well. A good looking young man wrapped in leather and jeans on a BMW motorcycle. Marlon Brando I’ll be right over. He did not look like the man I’d seen at the Krementz-Vonnegut’s. At all. Of course he was forty years younger in the photo. And despite his costume, which carries its own messages to the culture that abides by it, the young man looked unmenacingly intelligent and gentle, and even a little na├»ve. I later learned through reading that it was a portrait of bright beginnings. With many lessons, personal and professional to follow.

Born in 1933 (July 9) and brought up in London, his mother and father were doctors. In fact there were so many relatives who were doctors that he came to America  — firstly to Canada — to pursue a medical career where there weren’t a half dozen Dr. Sackses in the phone book.

The story is a journey through a man’s life, through his scientific and medical explorations, his great career as a writer of his subjects of interest. It is made more compelling by his considerable charm and lofty-yet-completely-accessible intellect.

It invites you in to taste the delicacies and ironies of the brain we possess. While at the same time Dr. Sacks entertains you with his stories of life and lives and derring-do on a BMW (I think he may have given it up by now) as well as the distinct ability to take it all in. The first time he won a prize when he was at university, he spent the financial award on the complete twelve volume Oxford English Dictionary. He described as great bedtime reading. He could have been kidding although I doubt it. It made me think I should have a go at some of it myself. I loved this book, and anyone is better off for the reading.