The New York Times called him “the poet laureate of medicine”, so when Oliver Sacks learned that his cancer was terminal, it was perhaps inevitable that the author of Awakenings should turn to writing to try to comprehend his last days. The response, earlier this year, just two weeks after the diagnosis, was a remarkable short essay in which he mused that the news had made him feel “intensely alive”. My Own Life is one of four essays here that discuss old age, illness and mortality with remarkable equanimity.
The title of the book is perfect: Sacks has a piercingly clear sense of gratitude for a long, fruitful existence that has allowed him to have “an intercourse with the world” but has not been without struggle and pain. He remembers the moment his mother, on discovering he was gay, told him: “I wish you had never been born.” Sacks, however, still achieves a sense of peace in the final paragraph of his last published work before his death in August. Incredible last words.