Oliver Sacks

"Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales" by Oliver Sacks

EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE: First Loves and Last Tales. By Oliver Sacks. Knopf. 275 pages. $26.95.

It's been said that as one gets old, one must give up things. But perhaps we get old because we give up things. That certainly seemed to be the philosophy of the distinguished neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who relinquished none of his questing intellect or joie de vivre to aging.

His final, posthumously published essay collection, “Everything in its Place,” is a fitting coda to an exemplary literary and medical career, displaying the essential humanity and spaciousness of mind that his readers have long come to expect.

Sacks, who died in 2015, wrote in the tradition of fellow physician Lewis Thomas, but with a voice, breadth of curiosity and kinship with life all his own.

Contained in this wide-ranging valedictory volume are the customary clinical case studies from his medical practice, generally in aid of clarifying a condition or illuminating a concept. But there is also an array of musings on everything from the premonitory power of dreams to a singular quality of the ginkgo, the only tree that drops all of its leaves in a single day.

In between, Sacks offers passionate odes to libraries, photography's revelations on movement, fossil botany, gardens, the wonder of crystals, the freedom of swimming and even the lost virtues of the asylum.

While underscoring the physician's role in some of the most intimate decisions of a patient's life, Sacks focuses on the various manifestations of Tourette's syndrome, on the aging brain, on dementia, and provides a detailed analysis of bipolar disorder and the hallucinatory nature of out-of-body and near-death experiences.

Most unsettling are his takes on how the mind can fall in love with psychosis and an account of rare neurological diseases with no DNA or RNA at all, disorders that may spread, fatally, from animals to humans.

One of the more engrossing essays introduces us to the pioneering 19th-century British chemist and poet Humphry Davy, whose close friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge found them connecting at various points along a mutually enriching artistic and scientific continuum. In Sacks' view, Coleridge was the chemist of language and Davy the poet of chemistry. But while Coleridge is firmly positioned in the literary pantheon, Davy's influence, his inventions and his considerable contributions to science, have been unjustly obscured by history.

Sacks rectifies the situation. Indeed, he reveals his admiration for noted scientists, artists, writers at every turn and, as always, introduces the reader to the works of many a gifted individual with whom we may not be familiar. But while one appreciates his point of view and enthusiasms, his characteristically fulsome praise can go over the top. One suspects not everyone is, or was, quite as surpassingly brilliant as he would have it.

No matter.

Writing in the last days of his life, yet without sounding curmudgeonly or out of touch, Sacks laments the physical book as an endangered species and the erosion of civility in a time of excessive attachment to smartphones and social media. “I worry more about the subtle, pervasive draining out of meaning, of intimate contact, from our society and culture.”

Sacks, justifiably called the “poet laureate of science,” will be keenly missed, not only for the elegance and potency of his writing, but for his critically important championing of science in an age of science denial.

He argues against the notion of the science of the past being irrelevant to the present, adding that “Science is far from being coldness and calculation, as many people imagine, but is shot through with passion, longing and romance.”

As are Sacks' warm, edifying, highly personal essays.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.