The photo on the front cover of On the Move (Knopf), Oliver Sacks’s recent autobiography, was a revelation. He’s shown straddling a black BMW R60 motorcycle at curbside in Greenwich Village, 1961, with stubbled hair, wearing tight jeans and a form-fitting black leather lace-up top. He looks as if he’s just come from some biker bar—not at all the image I’d associated with the respected neurologist and prolific science writer. The back cover shows Sacks at Machu Picchu in 2006: with grey beard and thinning hair, in khakis and Nike sneakers, stooped a bit, writing in his journal. Between those two cover photographs is the story of a fascinating life; fascinating not because Sacks led a life of high adventure—just the opposite, in fact. Sacks was painfully shy, much more comfortable researching or writing about the mysterious workings and disorders of the brain: erudite and compassionate essays that appeared regularly in publications like The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, essays which were later collected in half a dozen books (the best known is probably his 1985 collection The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). Robin Williams played a character based on Sacks in the 1990 film Awakenings (the Sacks character is named Dr. Malcolm Sayer in the film). The film script adds
a female love interest for Sayer, presumably to make the character more “relatable”; in On the Move Sacks writes movingly about what it was like to grow up gay in 1950s Britain, an era when homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration. On the Move was Sacks’s opportunity to at last be frank and open about every aspect of his life (hence the leather-clad biker photo on the cover). He died of cancer in August, 2015, at the age of 82.