March 9, 2017

Oliver Sacks wrote to understand, describe, explain, share, recollect, relate, narrate, define, categorize, generalize, seduce, evoke, and “fix” his thoughts in words, his extensive notes reveal


Oliver Sacks. Via Wikimedia Commons.

They called me Inky as a boy, and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago.

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

The above passage appears in On the Move, the autobiography of the great Oliver Sacks. But before that, it was written in slightly different form—but only a slightly different one (Sacks was known to let out his ideas in prose nearly fully formed)—on a sheet of a standard yellow legal pad, one of the beloved British neurologist and Last Interviewee’s go-to writing surfaces, of which, as Maria Popova points out this week on her blog Brain Pickings, there were a great many. Sacks wrote on everything from loose-leaf paper to airline menus, traditional notepads to the backs of envelopes. Whatever was at hand was good enough. No surface was too precious, or too crude.

Popova’s meticulous transcriptions reveal Sacks’s jottings’ atypical quality and subject matter: they exceed grocery store- and to-do lists in form, content, and jubilance. Under the weight of Sacks’s pen, manila envelopes are transformed into explorations of the nature of existence (“”Organisms are not machines, computers, automata, replicas, factories, ‘standard models,’ or identities (like atoms!)”) and the creativity of the human brain (“alive, incessantly active, seething—physiologically—from the moment of birth to the moment of death”) — all in messy, doctorly handwriting.

The reasons for all of this writing, and all of the writing it will eventually engender, for that matter, Sacks lists out for us on a legal pad:


put in perspective
express myself
speak for others
tell stories
“fix” in words
find verbal equivalent
create beauty

On the same sheet, lower, in red, he adds:

to praise
to condemn
to lament
to thank
to palliate
to reinforce
to solicit

The complete notes will eventually be collected at the Oliver Sacks Archive, where readers and scholars for years to come can bask in their wisdom and charm. Until then, do check out Popova’s post, “Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process.” It’s really cool and features many more delightful Sacksian ditties, as well as images of the source material on which they were inked (and trust me — that’s at least half the fun).



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.