Play and Devotion with Oliver Sacks

Lawrence Weschler in Orion Magazine:

As a student at St. Paul’s Academy in London, Oliver Sacks founded a tremendously successful literary society. It quickly eclipsed the staid Milton Society, “which had been founded at St. Paul’s, years earlier, by Milton himself,” he says. “We were a ravenous Jewish overgrowth,” he goes on, “and one day the headmaster called me in and said, ‘Sacks, you’re dissolved, you don’t exist,’ as simple as that—a phrase that has persisted within me, hauntingly, through the years.” Talking about St. Paul’s, which “used to be in Hammersmith, in a magnificent Gothic monstrosity,” to which Oliver would bike or bus (“the 28, the bus of my childhood, whose fare has in the meantime jumped from one penny to forty pence”), puts him in mind of the Natural History Museum in nearby South Kensington, which he would often skirt on the way to and from school—and he proposes we head over for a visit.

On the drive, he explains how, though his romance with motorcycles began in adolescence, he really only got his first one on his twenty-first birthday. During his last six months in England, stationed for a residency in Birmingham, he would gun his black Norton down the Birmingham–London highway. Eventually, as virtually his last act in England—he starts to laugh at the memory—he “stepped o=” his bike, at eighty miles an hour, slid a hundred yards on the slippery road, and survived, protected by his leather swaddling. (The bike was destroyed.)

Then, the minute he got to America, he got another, “an off-road scrambler.”

Arriving at the Natural History Museum, a huge and imposing stone secular cathedral built in high confident Victorian Gothic, Oliver relates, as we approach the ramp, “Beneath the visible museum, there was a vast underground one, crammed with anatomical samples. The New Spirit Building, it was called; I was a frequent visitor. The place used to be so unpopular, it was a delight. There were no concessions to popular presentation,” he says, punning.

More here.