Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Cover of Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Grateful to have had this insight into his declining years

Ok, I confess – as a long-time admirer of the late, great  Oliver Sacks, I bought this book for my husband for Christmas, because I wanted to read it and to have a copy of this beautifully produced, slim little commemorative hardback permanently in our household.

“The Poet Laureate of Medicine”

I first encountered Sacks’ moving accounts of his work as a neurologist many years ago. As his website describes him, he is truly the poet laureate of medicine. Ever since discovering his work, I’ve been constantly recommending his books to anyone whom I think might enjoy it, particulary his seminal and wonderfully-titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He has – or had, as he sadly died in August, nine years after being diagnosed with cancer – an unparalleled gift for describing extraordinary medical cases while celebrating the uniqueness and value of each individual patient, no matter how repellent or bizarre that person’s condition might be.

Focusing on Himself, for a Change

In Gratitude, he turns his focus on himself, celebrating a life well lived – if often unconventionally so – and coming to terms with his imminent death, though with unfading fascination for the world around him.

A delicate, carefully crafted set of essays to read and reread, to be enjoyed for their warmth, wisdom, gentle humour and originality of thought. I especially appreciated his method of marking birthdays according to the relevant element in the periodic table. According to my husband’s Periodic Table mug (another gift from the highly unscientific me), next month I’ll be embracing my Barium birthday. Hmm, not so sure about that one!

This slim volume deserves to become a classic, encapsulating so many of the many qualities that make him a great and memorable writer, including his ability to respond to science in a human, humane and engaging way that draws in even the most hardened sciencephobic. (That’ll be me, then.) A wonderful way to commemorate the great good he did in his long career, and an ideal introduction to his writing for anyone who hasn’t yet been won over by it. I suspect I’ll be buying plenty more copies as gifts for friends and relations in future.

Already a Classic?

I was gratified to see that since its publication in November, it has already reached the #1 bestseller slot on Amazon in the Essays category, but it is my discerning local high street bookseller, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth, that I have to thank for drawing my attention to it.

Footnote: After reading around this book online, I visited his partner Billy, mentioned in the closing essay, and enjoyed reading some of his beautifully written essays on his blog at www.billhayes.com – highly recommended. 

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4 thoughts on “Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

  1. Thank you for posting. I didn’t know they’d collected his last four essays into a single volume. I think I read them in the Times but it would be a nice collection to own, and gift, too. Also, thanks for the link to Bill Hayes’ page. His photo are absolutely astounding. Not just the ones of Oliver, but also the portraits. Great sense of composition and color.

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    • It’s a pleasure to share this find, Kurt. I’d not seen these essays in the paper, and came across this collection by chance in an excellent indie bookshop near where I live, which always contains unexpected treasures that are exactly my kind of book. The joy to be found in this little book, and the connections it leads to, are out of all proportion to its slim size!

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      • Did you see a similar book by Christopher Hitchens called Mortality after he passed away? The first couple were rational and well written but had a certain defiance and egotism saying “see I’m still right.” The last few were almost fragments and as if the universe were saying, “oh yeah? take that!” Do you know that you and I seem to be the only people on WP who have used the tag, Oliver Sacks? Thanks for the gift of your blog.

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      • Very interesting, Kurt – I’ll go and look up Christopher Hitchens’ book now. Already I’m intrigued at the potential “compare and contrast” opportunities for two books of this nature, each with a carefully chosen one word title… Thank you for the tip-off.

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