Reviewed by Simon
I’ve had the privilege of reviewing three different books by Oliver Sacks for Shiny New Books now, but this is the first since his sad death last year. By the time his autobiography On The Move was published, we already knew that Sacks had fatal cancer – though he didn’t know it when the manuscript was handed in. So the difference between his autobiography and three of the four essays here is precisely that: these are written with an awareness of mortality and this, indeed, is often their theme.
At only 45 pages, Gratitude is certainly a slim volume – and I think the £9.99 price tag should perhaps have been halved, despite the lovely quality of the book – but it captures much of what made Sacks such a wonderful human being. In fact, the opening page (of the only essay written before Sacks knew he would soon die, ‘Mercury’) shows this rather beautifully:
Last night I dreamed about mercury – huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be eighty myself.
Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At eleven, I could say “I am sodium” (element 11), and now at seventy-nine, I am gold. A few years ago, when I gave a friend a bottle of mercury for his eightieth birthday – a special bottle that could either leak nor break – he gave me a peculiar look, but later sent me a charming letter in which he joked, “I take a little every morning for my health.”
Oh, Sacks. You are gold. Though his enthusiasms are not my enthusiasms, there is a purity in the enthusiastic naivety of his pleasures that cannot help but be charming. And here it feels more than charming – it is elegiac. It is openly that in a later essay, ‘My Periodic Table’, which borrows the same theme:
And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence – an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence – I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: it says “Happy Thallium Birthday,” a souvenir of my eighty-first birthday last July, then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated eighty-second birthday earlier this month. Here too is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive – hence, the lead casket.
Also included is ‘My Own Life’, the essay in which Sacks announced his illness, printed in the New York Times (as were the other essays here). It is short, beautiful, and astonishingly positive. It is so perfectly formed, as both announcement and reflection, that I can’t possibly hope to paraphrase or even dissect by quoting.
The collection is concluded with ‘Sabbath’, which is a bit like On The Move in (very) brief – the essence of it. Sparse moments of his life are sewn together with the image of the Sabbath – which Sacks sees as helpful for secular and faithful alike. It is a poignant moment to end on, and the essay is filled with precisely what the title suggests: gratitude. I don’t know if Sacks thought of the title himself, suspecting the essays might be collected, but it sums him up perfectly. He was a man who was generous, thoughtful, humane, and – even in the face of terrible things – admirably and astonishingly grateful.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Oliver Sacks, Gratitude (Picador, 2015), 9781509822805, 45pp., hardback.