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Favorite Passages: Home

All quotes are from: On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

In the final pages, of the final chapter of On the Move, Sacks returns to one of his favorite topics – writing.

Journaling was essential for Sacks. He always kept a notebook close:

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.

On using journals as method for talking to one’s self:

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Sacks strays away from the tortured writer narrative. His attitude towards writing is similar to Ray Bradbury.

It’s a pleasure. It’s a joy. It’s an elixir to the chaos of life.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject-where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

And after seventy years writing is still fun!

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

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Favorite Passages: A New Vision of the Mind

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks describing his meeting with the Noble Prize winning physical chemist Gerald M. Edelman:

He then abruptly took his leave, and looking out the window, I could see him walking rapidly down York Avenue, looking to neither side. “That is the walk of a genius, a monomaniac,” I thought to myself. “He is like a man possessed.” I had a sense of awe and envy-how I should like such a ferocious power of concentration! But then I thought that life might not be entirely easy with such a brain, indeed, Edelman, I was to find, took no holidays, slept little, and was driven, almost bullied, by nonstop thinking; he would often phone Rosenfield in the middle of the night. Perhaps I was better off with my own, more modest endowment.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

While Edelman’s drive and single focus is admirable. Sacks goes further, admitting his envy for Edelman. Sacks recognized that while Edelman’s abilities were desirable, there was a freedom in his less “focused” life.

Sack’s intellectual work, a combination of working with patients, writing books, traveling, love for cephalopods, taking piano lessons in his seventies wasn’t “focused”. But it was rich.

A more modest endowment can have benefits.

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Favorite Passages: Voyages

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks opens the chapter – Voyages with a reflection on his father’s work ethic and subtle career advice.

At one time, my father had thought of a career in neurology but then decided that general practice would be “more real,” “more fun,” because it would bring him into deeper contact with people and their lives.

This intense human interest he preserved to the last: when he reached the age of ninety, David and I entreated him to retire-or at least, to stop his house calls. He replied that home visits were “the heart” of medical practice and that he would sooner stop anything else. From the age of ninety to almost ninety-four, he would charter a mini-cap for the day to continue house calls.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

After reading this passage Paul Graham’s essay How to Do What You Love came to mind. In that essay, Graham argues one should build a career (I’d argue a life) based on genuine interests, rather than prestige.

Sack’s father intuitively understood this. A neurologist does hold a higher status in society than a general practice doctor. And certainly more than a general practice doctor making house calls. But it was in that general practice, meeting the needs of his fellow man, that Sack’s father built a meaningful life.

I wonder if Dr. Sacks (sr.) had chosen Neurology, would he have had the same enthusiasm and stamina to continue working into his ninety’s?

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Favorite Passages: City Island

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

After 3 months, I’ve returned to Dr. Oliver Sacks’ memoir – On the Move: A Life.

Reading each page is skiing downhill. A smooth, lightning shot of a journey that slaloms through Dr. Sacks’ curious life.

It’s been a joy.

From the chapter, City Island:

Especially in our early days, I sometimes felt terrified of his directness – terrified in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse. I had feared his criticisms at the beginning, but from 1971 on, when I sent him Migraine, I was eager for his reactions, depended on them, and gave more weight than those of anyone else.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Even Dr. Sacks feared critique of his writing. Especially from his friend and correspondent the poet Thom Gunn.

But as much as Gunn’s directness terrified Dr. Sacks, he valued Gunn’s feedback of his writing more than anyone else’s.

Sacks understood Gunn’s feedback would improve his writing.

Sacks also describes Gunn in the opening of the City Island chapter as a tremendous walker:

Thom was always a tremendous walker, striding up and down the hills of San Francisco. I never saw him with a car or a bicycle; he was quintessentially a walker, a walker like Dickens, who observed everything, took it in, and used it sooner or later in what he wrote.

Throughout On The Move, Sacks introduces us to new characters as if you’d be joining them for a Friday dinner party.

Sacks’ detailed descriptions of their character quirks reveal their humanity.

P.S. I want to be considered a tremendous walker!

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Podcasted: Alan Jacobs and Brett McKay on How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading.


If you don’t want a guilt trip on reading more than Alan Jacobs is for you.

Few people speak as eloquently on reading as Alan Jacobs.

Few people are less judgmental hoity-toity arses speaking on reading as Alan Jacobs.

So when Brett McKay recently interviewed Alan on how reading should bring pleasure and fulfillment to your life, I listened twice.


Alan admits, it’s OK not to read the great works everyday:

But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.

Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.

On seeing where your W-H-I-M takes you:

Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”

And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

How to read “upstream”:

Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”

And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.

And Brett McKay shares how reading “upstream” led him to Empire of the Summer Moon:

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.

And rereading a book can shake your core:

Brett McKay:

Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.

I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.

Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.

Read on a W-H-I-M.

Forge your own reading path. You don’t always need someone’s list to guide you.

Listen to the podcast in full below:

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Kevin Kelly’s 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice, with context.


When Kevin Kelly posted 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice for his 68th birthday, I was like worrrrrdddd.

But I was also left wanting more.

I needed context.

What do you mean Trust me: There is no “them” ?

How likely am I to get in a land war in Asia?

Are you sure the universe is conspiring behind my back to make me a success? I’m not sure I believe in pronoia Mr. Kelly.


Then Freakonomics dropped podcast episode #419: 68 Ways to Be Better at Life. Stephen Dubner had Mr. Kelly expand on his timeless list of wisdom biscuits.

Listen below:

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Ode to Marcelo Bielsa


Marseille. Bilbao. They

sing his name. Not for trophies.

For his character.