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Oliver Sacks' 'Gratitude': An engaging grace note to a great career

As a neurologist, Oliver Sacks was a brain mechanic of sorts, using medicine to try to ignite a spark inside skulls that had gone dark. As a writer, he spent his life inspiring us not to waste ours.

By Oliver Sacks

Knopf. 64 pp. $18

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Reviewed by Tara Murtha

As a neurologist, Oliver Sacks was a brain mechanic of sorts, using medicine to try to ignite a spark inside skulls that had gone dark. As a writer, he spent his life inspiring us not to waste ours.

His first significant contribution to the genre he essentially created - stylish, commercial medical parables infused with philosophical musings - remains his most famous work. Published in 1973 (and later made into a film starring Robin Williams), Awakenings tells the story of a group of patients who mysteriously contracted encephalitis lethargica after World War I.

Encephalitis lethargica, also called "sleepy sickness," attacks the brain and can leave patients catatonic, locked inside themselves. As an experiment, Sacks prescribes L-Dopa, a medicine found to be helpful for Parkinson's disease. It works, at least for a while: The sparks catch, enabling his patients to emerge from their cocoons, eager to connect, share a laugh, play a favorite tune on piano. And then they fade away again.

Gratitude is a quartet of final essays by Sacks, who died in August. Gratitude, like Awakenings, shows that his life's pursuit was exploring the challenges of the road to enlightenment. He told us stories about people suffering neurological disorders in the hopes of shaking readers awake out of more ordinary traps of walking catatonia: the day-to-day blur of busy-ness, the peculiar suffocation of living life through screens, the ordinary fear of intimacy.

Sacks was an ordinary man in that regard, locked up tight inside himself in ways he didn't start writing about until only recently. But when facing down death, he wrote fearlessly.

Just days after he completed the manuscript for On the Move, his recent memoir, Dr. Sacks learned that a melanoma in his eye first diagnosed in 2005 had metastasized to his liver and that he had six months left to live. Gratitude features work from the last two years of his life, including "My Own Life," an essay written in the hours after learning his condition was fatal.

In it, Sacks shares how his perspective on the world continues to widen, even as his literal sight grows dim and soon will be snuffed out.

"Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts," he wrote. "This does not mean I am finished with life."

He feels for the contours of gratitude by chiseling away regrets. He wishes he had traveled more, spoken more languages, wasted less time. To avoid wasting any more, he discards inessential subjects, such as politics - which concerns the future and therefore belongs to the young. He focuses instead on deepening friendships, traveling, and continuing his quest to chart the dark waters between body and the spirit.

In "My Periodic Table," Sacks describes his lifelong fascination with the grade-school grid of single chemical elements, neatly stacked and sequenced by the number of protons in each element's atomic nucleus. In "Sabbath," Sacks invites us into his private space, past thought and theory, into a more sacred chamber. We see him growing up a young Jewish boy in London, walking to Cricklewood Synagogue on Walm Lane, a Jewish community decimated by World War II. We meet him as a teenager.

"I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was eighteen," he writes. "It was then that my father, enquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys."

His mother freaked out, a rejection that may partly explain his "near-suicidal" speed addiction, followed by an "almost monkish" adulthood. He was, in fact, celibate for most of his life, reportedly entering a partnership at the age of 77, an aspect of his life he addresses explicitly in his memoir.

Gratitude is occasionally interrupted when Sacks jarringly name-drops famous friends, as when he recalls something his buddies W.H. Auden or Samuel Beckett once said. But why pick nits? Overall, Gratitude is a grace note to an epic career, words breezing by, the writing natural as rain. It's a generous spirit that spends his last few months on earth trying to distill the experience of facing death down into final words worth sharing with the living.

"Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet," he says, "and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure." Even the hardest-hearted of recreational cynics will leave the book with an attitude adjustment, a desire to live in the present, a feeling that though society is generally a horror show, life itself is beautiful.

Tara Murtha is the author of "Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe.' "