Top critical review
on 5 September 2017
I am a huge fan of Oliver Sacks and his writing, his boyish love and enthusiasm for learning and his enduring curiosity comes across from a really early age, and it clearly translated into adulthood. His family, in particular his mum and uncle did a lot to encourage his inquisitive nature as they fed him knowledge and passed down their wisdom. This is an autobiography, but it is also about many of the scientific elements, and it is as much about chemistry as it is about Sacks. This peculiar mix leads us to some fascinating and maddening places.
There are many times when the main body of the text is almost overwhelmed by the footnotes, pages where more space is taken up by the actual footnotes than the text, and so, often it’s like David Foster Wallace is re-interpreting Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. The chapter on Mendeleev started off so promising and then quickly descended into a punishing slog and a total mess, due to the bombardment of footnotes. What’s so bad about an appendix?...
There is a lot of science in here, a whole lot of science, some of it is very interesting, but even more of it is not very interesting at all, and can become tiresome to read. “On The Move”, his most recent autobiography, was an excellent read, and was bursting with exhilarating details of a life embraced and lived to the full, whereas this is more like being stuck in a double period of chemistry. If you love chemistry then this is obviously a good thing.
His experiences of war time England are interesting. Some of his memories throw up many vivid and surreal snapshots that really give us a feel for the time. His years spent enduring the English public school system is the stuff of cruel nightmares. Sacks’ is mostly good company, and a very likeable man, who's sense of reason and curiosity takes him to some intriguing places. There are some lovely moments, like his feverish excitement during his repeated visits to the Science Museum, when it reopened after the War in 1945. There are dark ones too, like the story of him being taken to a mortuary at the age of 14, where he is left alone with a 14 year old female cadaver, and told to dissect her. It’s the stuff of nightmares and understandably had a lasting impact on him. His story of making damper with the scouts and being too scared to ask for more flour, has some pretty funny results too.
Sacks is a fascinating character who has accomplished a great body of work over his long and impressive career, his enthusiasm is often infectious and he is rarely dull, but I felt this book would have been so much better had it focused more on him, instead of the science, and of course the footnotes. I enjoy footnotes, but there is a balance to be struck, and there comes a point when you have gone too far, then you begin to serve more to disorientate than to inform, or disrupt the flow, rather than enhance it. After all, that is what the appendix section is for.